Saturday, October 30, 2010

Four Loko: a caffeinated high-alcohol content beverage—is it safe or should it be regulated or banned?

More and more people are consuming alcoholic beverages that contain caffeine, which seems to mask some of alcohol’s intoxicating subject effects.

A recent incident at Central Washington University in Washington State involving the caffeinated alcoholic beverage Four Loko was associated with 9 hospitalizations, and received widespread national press coverage including reports in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, Business Week, and National Public Radio.

That incident followed on a similar one in September at Ramapo College in New Jersey in which a number of students were hospitalized after drinking Four Loko.  Ramapo’s President Peter Mercer instituted a campus ban of Four Loko and similar drinks.  Central Washington University followed with its own ban soon after.

Four Loko is available in a 23.5-ounce can that contains 12% alcohol content (roughly five 12-oz beers’ worth of alcohol) with an unspecified amount of caffeine added.  Four Loko has been referred to as “blackout in a can” or “liquid cocaine”.

One of the main problems with these beverages is that they reduce some of the symptoms of alcohol intoxication while impairing motor coordination, so people may feel less impaired than they are, which can increase their risk for experiencing injuries, sexual assaults, and for developing problems with alcohol.

For example, a web-based survey study in over 4,000 college students from 10 North Carolina universities reported that consumption of alcohol mixed with energy drinks was associated with increase negative consequences including future heavy drinking and higher rates of being injured and of requiring medical treatment.

A recent study reported that several measures of cognitive performance were reduced in subjects who consumed a caffeine-containing beverage including 6% alcohol, which had about one-third the amount of alcohol in Four Loko.

In November 2009, the Food and Drug Administration, which maintains a list of manufacturers of such beverages and their products sent letters to these manufacturers requesting that they document safety of their products within 30 days.  The FDA has not yet issued a report on findings resulting from this inquiry.

There is an increasing push to have these beverages regulated if not banned altogether including calls for a statewide ban by the Washington State Attorney General and, even before the recent incidents noted above, calls for FDA action by several United States Senators including Charles Schumer (D) of New York.

Clearly, these types of beverages have the potential to cause harm and more research in this area is needed to determine whether they should be regulated or banned.

CPDDBLOG welcomes CPDD member’s thoughts on this issue. 

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