Selling unhealthy foods to young people is hardly a new thing, but combining alcohol and caffeine in a 24-ounce can and marketing it to underage partygoers as a fruit-flavored pick-me-up is pushing the boundaries. The drinks are raising alarms among consumer advocacy groups, doctors and lawmakers over concoctions like Four Loko and Joose, which have a loyal following despite causing blackouts and other health emergencies.
The malt beverages, whose funky package designs and labeling make them look almost indistinguishable from iced tea or non-alcoholic energy drinks, typically contain 6% to 12% alcohol and caffeine in the range of 54mg to 135mg, packed in a 23.5-ounce can. The drinks, also known as "alcospeed" for their potent mix of caffeine, guarana, taurine and ginseng, are dangerous because the caffeine tricks the body into staying alert and consuming more, creating a perfect storm of intoxication helped along by the sheer size of the cans.
"They're marketed toward younger people who don't always make good decisions and who are not experienced in drinking responsibly. So it's easier with this type of drink to over consume," David Schardt, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Consumer Ally.
Four Loko, which packs the alcoholic punch of five 12-ounce beers and is loaded with 135 mg of caffeine, more than the amount in the average cup of brewed coffee (about 108mg), is a particularly stealthy marketer. Known colloquially as "blackout in a can" and "liquid cocaine," its flashy, candy-colored packaging and flavors like watermelon, lemonade and fruit punch are clearly intended to "mislead legal-age adults while actively courting underage drinkers," U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said in a statement in July. The senator asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Phusion Projects, the company behind Four Loko and Four MaXed, along with other makers of alcospeed. He called the beverages' frequent placement next to ordinary energy drinks a "highly disturbing" cause of confusion for both legal and illegal consumers.
Joining a collective effort to regulate the small but burgeoning industry, Schumer has also prodded the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to deepen and make public the results of a yearlong probe into marketers (full list available here). The probe was launched after a letter by 18 attorneys general last year expressed "grave concerns" about the drinks' safety and asked the FDA to remove them from the market.
The beverages are "promoted to a young audience for consumption in multiple servings, via images and text depicting simultaneous or consecutive consumption of multiple cans, and with association with extreme sports or other high risk activities such as snowboarding, skateboarding, and motocross biking," the lawmakers' letter said.
Schardt conceded as much: "The kids who are buying them know exactly what's in them -- that's why they're buying them." A Facebook fan page created around an interest in a keg-sized version of Four Loko declares, "We're tired of getting drunk and passing out when we should be getting drunk and living it up."
Mindful of students' often limited spending budget, alcospeed drinks are typically priced from $2.50 to $6 a can, with costs as low as $1.99 in some markets. The trend, which started in the late 1990s with Red Bull, has evolved to include alcohol and caffeine-laced Liquid Charge, Torque, 24/Seven, Rockstar21 and Smirnoff Raw Tea, the party drink backed by a viral advertising campaign on YouTube.
Mixing a depressant with a stimulant, which is what alcohol and caffeine are, fools users into feeling less intoxicated than they really are. That makes them more likely to engage in drunk driving, risky sexual behavior and violence, as well as suffer alcohol poisoning, heart attack, coma and death, according to multiple sources.
Alcospeed makers have come under fire before for marketing to young people via word-of-mouth and amateur web sites. Beer giants Anheuser-Busch, which tried its hand with Tilt and Bud Extra, and MillerCoors, manufacturer of Sparks caffeinated beer, both discontinued their products after lawmakers and the CSPI threatened to sue them for promoting drinks that "mask feelings of intoxication."
But smaller companies like Phusion and United Brands, the maker of Joose (9.9% alcohol content) and 3Sum, may be willing to take larger risks, since they stand to lose less than the conglomerates and may not be around long enough to care to act responsibly, Schardt said.
United Brands did not return a call or answer an e-mail seeking comment.
The energy drink market is so red-hot and profitable that even marketers of non-alcoholic performance-enhancing drinks have calculated they can take a slap on the wrist from regulators once in a while. Just last week, 11 brands were faulted for not disclosing excessive amounts of caffeine, in addition to some that clearly indicated dangerously high levels of the stimulant on their labels.
Nine students at Central Washington University were hospitalized after consuming Four Loko and other alcoholic beverages at an off-campus party in October. Also last month, Ramapo College of New Jersey banned Four Loko on campus after 39 students and 16 visitors ended up in a hospital.
Caffeinated alcohol drinks under fire after incidents