Monday, November 8, 2010

Caffeinated alcoholic beverages creating stir

Eric Weddle • Journal & Courier • October 29, 2010

It's sugary sweet, and comes with a wallop of caffeine -- backed by the alcohol content of four beers.

Malt liquor-infused energy drinks are attracting attention, much of it negative, after the hospitalization of Central Washington University students earlier this month. Now, some states are seeking to ban the adult beverages.

Known by names such as Four Loko and Joose, such drinks are not strangers to Purdue University and area law enforcement officials. Purdue health leaders have already flagged them as a problem, and they will be the focus of a social media campaign this spring.

"The combination of the sweet taste is what makes people mindlessly drink it, and also in a shorter amount of time," said Anne Mahon, coordinator for nutrition education programs at Purdue's Student Health Center.

"That combination is what really speeds up the state of drunkenness, and it's beyond the body's ability to process. Then it really begins to put people at risk of developing alcohol poisoning very quickly."

Mahon said the drink's caffeine content prevents the body from combating alcohol, a depressant, with sleep. That leads to people consuming more alcohol and becoming even more intoxicated.

Mahon said research shows that mixing caffeine and alcohol makes people more likely to ride with an intoxicated driver or to be taken advantage of sexually.

"That is where the saying 'wide awake and drunk' comes from," she said.

Four Loko comes in several varieties, including fruit punch and blue raspberry. A single 23.5-ounce can sells for about $2.50 and has an alcohol content of 12 percent. That's as much alcohol as four or five beers, depending on the beer variety.

Earlier this month, nine Central Washington University students were hospitalized after a house party where some students admitted drinking vodka, rum and beer with Four Loko.

As a result, Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna called for the drinks to be banned and sent a letter to the FDA on Monday saying the drinks "present a serious threat to public health and safety."

Purdue senior George Jurewicz said banning or restricting Four Loko or similar beverages doesn't make sense. Jurewicz said he's bought the drink once because of its cheap price.

"I didn't like the way it tasted," he said. "But it kept you going. I had it early in the evening because I was tired. I wouldn't drink it a lot but now and then, I may.

"But I don't see how it would hurt someone. If they can't handle it, they should not be drinking at all."

Purdue health advocacy coordinator Tammy Loew said Purdue is watching how students are affected by caffeine and alcohol.

A spring 2009 Purdue student wellness survey found that 25.6 percent of students combined alcohol and energy drinks at least once in the previous 12 months of the survey.

Of those that combined the two in the last 12 months, 66.6 percent combined alcohol and energy drinks at least once in the last 30 days.

Loew said efforts will be increased in 2011 on making students aware of the dangers of combining caffeine and alcohol.

But for now, the true extant of what these drinks can do is unknown.

The FDA sent a warning letter to the maker of Four Loko, Phusion Products of Chicago, in November 2009 asking the company for information that shows adding caffeine to alcoholic beverages is safe. The case remains open, the agency said in a statement Monday.

Some states and colleges are taking matter into their own hands.

New Jersey's Ramapo College banned the drinks last month after attributing several students' hospitalizations to Four Loko.

Utah and Montana have restricted the sale of the caffeinated malt liquors to just state liquor stores. Indiana has no such legislation in the works.

West Lafayette police have no reports or special concerns with these drinks, said Lt. Gary Sparger.

Steven Schmidt, a spokesman for the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, said many states feel they need to act quickly on the issue because the drinks are increasing in popularity.

"There's really a sense that people consuming these drinks don't understand how much alcohol they are drinking," he said. "These products pack a punch, and they are relatively inexpensive."

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