Officials Looking To Outlaw High-Caffeine Alcoholic Drinks

BERLIN – In the wake of a terrible tragedy that claimed the life of an Eastern Shore woman last weekend, local, state and federal officials this week called for an immediate ban on certain high-octane alcoholic beverages being marketed and sold to young adults.

Marketed under names such as “Four Loko” and “Joose” among others, Alcoholic Energy Drinks (AEDs) have become increasingly popular with young adults and teens in recent weeks including college students and even high school students who can gain access to them. AEDs are alcoholic beverages to which copious amounts of caffeine and other stimulants, including guarana, have been added when they are produced. Packaged and sold in 23.5-ounce cans resembling energy drinks with flavors such as fruit punch, lemonade and watermelon, for example, some of the beverages contain the alcohol equivalent of five or six beers and the caffeine equivalent of four or five colas or two cups of coffee.

Last weekend, a 23-year-old St. Michaels woman lost her life after reportedly consuming two cans of “Four Loko” at a party before crashing a pick-up truck into a telephone pole. According to reports, her friends said she was not herself after consuming the beverages and they took her car keys, but she found the keys to a truck before the tragic accident.

Already, four states have banned the sale of AEDs after similar tragic accidents. On Wednesday, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot called for a voluntary ban on the drinks before the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association and the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association took formal steps to remove the products from the shelves.

“These products are proving to be unpredictable at best and outright dangerous at worst,” said Franchot. “We have seen cases across the country and now, tragically, here in Maryland, where adults are not able to handle this potent mix of alcohol and caffeine. A person’s natural instincts and warning signs are fooled by the caffeine into believing the alcohol is having little to no effect.”

Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler was also taking formal steps this week to ban the dangerous AEDs in the state. Gansler cited a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report that has called for a national ban on the beverages.

“AEDs attract young people who wrongly believe that the caffeine will offset the intoxicating effects of the alcohol,” he said. “In fact, the caffeine in these products only mask, not offset, alcohol intoxication.”

With the increased popularity of the beverages have come increased reports of alcohol poisoning, serious injury including sexual assault, and hospitalizations.

“Over the past few months, hardly a day has gone by that we have not seen or heard a news report about teens or young adults seriously injuring themselves or others after consuming AEDs,” said Gansler. “Sadly, here in Maryland, a young woman lost her life just last week after reportedly consuming one of these beverages. As the FDA’s letters make clear, there is simply no way to consume these beverages safely.”

Meanwhile, Phusion Products, the manufacturer of Four Loko, one of the more popular AED brands, this week voluntarily agreed to begin reducing or eliminating the caffeine in the beverages.

“We are taking this step after trying, unsuccessfully, to navigate a difficult and politically-charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels,” a company release states. “Over the last several months, we have been more than willing to talk with regulators and policymakers on the national, state and local levels. Our company has a history of being cooperative as we possibly can to ensure that our products are consumed safely, responsibly and only by of-age adults.”

However, the company continued to defend its AED products.

“We have repeatedly contended, and still believe, as do many people throughout the country, that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe,” the release reads. “If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees, which have been consumed safely and responsibly for years, would face the same scrutiny that our products have recently faced.”

Closer to home, local law enforcement officials are keeping a close eye on the AED situation, according to OCPD spokeswoman Jessica Waters, who ironically was in St. Michaels last weekend for a wedding when the tragic accident occurred.

“As far as I am aware of, we haven’t seen any specific incidents related to these beverages, but it’s certainly on our radar,” she said. “It’s just like what we went through with Salvia, and then K-2 this summer. These things seem to pop up all of the sudden and we try to be proactive.”

Waters said if need be, the OCPD would likely take similar steps with AEDs should the need arise.

“It’s something we’re probably going to look into,” she said. “It seems like steps are being taken already on the state and national level, but we’ll take some action or make some recommendations if we need to locally.”