The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission today warned four manufacturers of alcoholic energy drinks that the high levels of caffeine added to their products is unsafe, effectively banning their sale.
The action follows a series of state bans limiting distribution of the beverages, which have sickened dozens of consumers nationwide and lead to at least two deaths since August.
The companies receiving warning letters are United Brands Company (manufacturer of Joose and Max), Charge Beverages Corp. (Core High Gravity, Core Spike), New Century Brewing Co. (Moonshot), and Phusion Projects, which puts out the blockbuster drink Four Loko, also known as "blackout in a can."
"These are not your ordinary beers. They're fruit-flavored, carbonated drinks sold in supersized containers with more than twice the concentration of alcohol in regular beer," said David Vladeck, director of consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission, in a conference call with reporters. He characterized the drinks -- which come in 24-ounce cans, contain up to 12% alcohol and generally cost less than $3 -- as a recipe for disaster for young, inexperienced users who have embraced them as part of campus culture and who are the marketers' main target.
"This is an important first step and additional steps will be taken to protect the health of the public," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg also said during the briefing.
The FDA explained its action by citing peer-reviewed scientific literature, which shows the simultaneous consumption of caffeine and alcohol is not the same as drinking a glass of wine followed by a cup of coffee, as Phusion Projects has contended. Public health advocates say blending caffeine and alcohol is a treacherous mix that tricks users into feeling more sober than they are. This is because caffeine alters the perception of intoxication and creates a false sense of alertness, which can lead to life-threatening situations such as drunk driving, violent sexual assault and suicide.
In anticipation of the ban, Phusion Projects said late Tuesday it would reformulate its product and make it caffeine-free. Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna called the action "cynical" and likened it to that of an employee who announces his resignation at the news of an imminent firing.
Under pressure by state regulators, the company also agreed to stop shipping the beverage to New York by the end of the week.
The FDA has indicated the products named in the warning letters are being marketed in violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and is asking each manufacturer to respond within 15 days. If the agency believes the violations continue to exist after that period, it may seek seizure of the products or an injunction against the companies.
Caffeinated alcoholic energy drinks are already banned in Michigan, Washington, Utah and Oklahoma, and liquor distributors in New York and Connecticut have agreed to voluntarily stop placing orders for Four Loko. State officials put in the new rules following dozens of college students in Washington state and New Jersey being hospitalized last month after drinking Four Loko. College officials in New Jersey and Rhode Island have also banned the beverages on campus.
The drinks are so popular with teenage and college-age consumers that, according to media reports, some users have begun as early as last week stockpiling them in preparation for the ban. Fans of the beverages have also expressed their protests on social media sites.
Because of the high demand and the companies' eagerness to meet it, banning the drinks state by state or one by one may not be enough, said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. "This [warning] is a real act in the public interest, particularly in the interest of young people in this country. That's why we had to seek federal help," he said.
Adding a touch of hyperbole to the controversy, Stephen Colbert, the late-night talk show host, yesterday announced the launch of his own "C-Zurrrre" caffeinated alcoholic drink -- "an extreme energy booze quencher that's like a strobe light strapped inside of your skull." He also took a sip of Four Loko on stage, comparing its taste to that of a Duracell battery.
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