Alcoholic, caffeinated drinks in the cross hairs

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Pennsylvania's keepers of the keys to the liquor cabinet aren't the only ones moving against a product known as "liquid cocaine" and "blackout in a can."

Michigan's Liquor Control Commission last week banned alcoholic energy drinks, ordering manufacturers of the beverages to get all of their inventory out of the state within 30 days.

Commission Chairwoman Nida Samona cited "health, safety and welfare" concerns, saying Michigan residents shouldn't have access to the beverages until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determines that it is safe to combine caffeine and alcohol.

The fruit-flavored drinks come in colorful 23.5-ounce cans and contain as much alcohol as you'd get in about five low-powered beers and as much caffeine as a 12-ounce cup of coffee. Critics say they create wide-awake drunks who don't realize how inebriated they are.

"One can, one serving, is enough to get you intoxicated. Alcoholic energy drinks cost on average $2 to $5 per can, making these products easily accessible and affordable," said Michigan Commissioner Patrick Gagliardi.

Pennsylvania's Liquor Control Board stopped short of a ban in a letter to retailers on Monday. Jerry W. Waters Sr., the agency's regulatory affairs director, asked retailers not to sell the beverages until the FDA decides whether they are safe.

However, state Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown wants to ban alcoholic energy drinks. The Philadelphia Democrat said late last week she would introduce legislation that would accomplish that early next year.

West Virginia's Alcohol Beverage Control Administration is taking a hard look at whether to do something about the drinks, spokesman Gig Robinson said. And the head of Oregon's Liquor Control Commission also wants to pull the products off the shelves until the FDA decides what to do about them.

Alcoholic energy drinks are no strangers to the long arm of the law. MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev pulled their versions of the beverage from the market two years ago to get a group of state attorneys general off their backs.

The growing drumbeat for regulatory action comes after widely publicized incidents, including a party at Central Washington University that sent nine youths to the hospital for alcohol poisoning. One young drinker at the party was put on a respirator and almost died, Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna wrote in an Oct. 25 letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

"The obvious appeal of energy drinks to young people underscores the danger of adding alcohol to the beverages," Mr. McKenna wrote.

The regulatory scrutiny the beverages are receiving could have an economic impact in Latrobe, where one of the most popular brands, Four Loko, is produced under contract at the former Rolling Rock brewery. Phusion Projects, the Chicago company that owns the Four Loko brand, said the beverage accounted for the majority of the production at the plant, which employs more than 150. The brewery is owned by City Brewing of LaCrosse, Wis.

The PLCB's request also will hurt distributors and retailers who sell the popular products and reduce alcohol tax revenue, Phusion Projects said in a statement.

The FDA asked Phusion Projects and other alcoholic energy drink makers last November to document how adding caffeine to alcohol is safe. While the U.S. Treasury has primary responsibility for regulating alcoholic beverages, that agency requires that drinks contain only ingredients that meet FDA requirements.

Phusion Projects said it had given the FDA its study by independent scientists and food safety experts who concluded that Four Loko is safe. An FDA spokesman said it could take the agency some time to make a final decision.

Regardless of what the FDA decides, its reach and the reach of other well-intentioned regulators goes only so far.

Many of the incidents that riled regulators involved the abuse of several types of alcohol, not just caffeinated alcoholic beverages. They also involved under-age drinkers, as sobering of a statement as can be made about the limits of the law.

The fact of the matter is that the primary market for these products are young people who lead busy, hectic lives. One researcher who has studied the impact alcoholic energy drinks have on their target market put it this way:

"It's consistent with that instant gratification that young people crave today," said Bruce Goldberger, director of toxicology at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

Taking every colorful, alcohol-fortified can of alcoholic energy drinks off the market won't change that. Young people intent on getting real high, real quick -- including those intent on accomplishing that before they're 21 -- will remain outside the reach of the law.

Those 21 and older would still have two legal alternatives for behaving irresponsibly: inhaling cocktails they mix on their own that combine an energy drink with a liquor of their choice, or downing massive amounts of a caffeinated alcoholic beverage that has been approved by the FDA -- a rum and Coke.

Len Boselovic: or 412-263-1941.


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