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November 13, 2010

While there is no ban on caffeinated alcoholic beverages such as Four Loko in New York State, residents may have a harder time finding these products as the state’s major beer distributors agree to stop selling the beverages some say are dangerous.

Called “blackout in a can,” beverages combining alcohol with caffeine have been much in the news lately due to alcohol poisoning, violence and even deaths allegedly caused by these products.

The Wall Street Journal reports that major beer distributors in New York State will discontinue selling these controversial beverages. While officials are applauding the move, many smaller distributors have not signed on to the agreement.

Banned already in several states including Michigan, Oklahoma, Washington and Utah, other states are currently considering legislation on caffeinated alcoholic beverages. The products have been associated with underage sales and drinking, attractive because of their fruity flavors. Much of the spotlight has been on a product named Four Loko, in which drinking a 23.5-ounce can is like drinking three beers and three cups of coffee.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently views caffeinated alcoholic beverages on the market as GRAS, meaning generally recognized as safe.

A group of scientists and scholars sent a letter to several Attorney Generals on September 21, 2009 stating that their research found no evidence that the use of caffeine in alcoholic beverages is “generally recognized as safe.”

Researchers wrote that these combination beverages pose serious public health risks, including:

  • People who frequently drink caffeinated alcoholic beverages drink greater quantities than those who do not and may increase their risk of drug dependence later.
  • Caffeine reduces the feeling of being drunk but does not improve reduced judgment or reaction time associated with intoxication.
  • Improper perception of intoxication level can effect decisions that can result in alcohol poisoning, drunk driving or harm to oneself or another.
  • Being wide awake and drunk at the same time increases risk of violent and dangerous behaviors such as sexual assault and recklessness.
  • Caffeinated alcoholic beverages may increase risk of cardiac arrhythmia, especially in predisposed individuals.

“In summary, there is no general consensus among health professionals and the scientific research community that the use of caffeine in alcoholic beverages has been demonstrated to be safe,” said scientists and scholars in the letter. “On the contrary, the consumption of caffeinated alcoholic beverages has been associated with increased risk of serious injury to oneself and to others, as the result of driving while intoxicated, sexual assault, and other dangerous behaviors.”

In November 2009, the FDA responded to pressure from Attorney Generals and other officials, announcing that the agency had notified 30 manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages that it intends to look into the safety and legality of their products.

Phusion Projects LLC, of Chicago, IL, the manufacturer of Four Loko products, released a statement responding to state and federal regulators, disagreeing that mixing caffeine and alcohol is inherently unsafe.

“As you know, the FDA began its examination in November 2009 – well before the recent media attention on the category – and expects to complete it in the coming months,” Phusion Projects co-founders said. “Our company has submitted a “Generally Regarded as Safe” (GRAS) study in which an independent panel of scientific experts found that adding caffeine to alcohol is safe.”

The Phusion Projects LLC website says that three college friends founded the company that now employs 90 people.

“If mixing caffeine and alcohol is the most pressing concern, addressing it would be best accomplished by creating laws that apply to the entire caffeinated alcoholic beverage category – not specific, individual products and not just beers or malt-based products. This is especially important given that liquor-based beverages have three to four-times the alcohol content as products like ours,” the Phusion statement said. “If product-specific bans remain the preferred course of action, we will protect our rights as a business to the fullest extent of the law.”

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