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Outside editorial: A sane response on caffeinated alcoholic drinks

Posted: Sunday, November 28, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Food and Drug Administration officials have begun a long overdue crackdown on alcoholic drinks that contain caffeine. The FDA has concluded, correctly, adding caffeine to alcohol is unsafe and hasn't been approved by federal officials. Four companies that make the drinks were given 15 days to take action; the FDA could seek a court order banning the products if they don't.

The FDA's decision comes after a series of disturbing reports involving underage drinkers and products such as Four Loko, a caffeine-infused fruity malt beverage that contains 12 percent alcohol. It has been implicated in several deaths and hospitalizations. The maker of Four Loko, Chicago-based Phusion Projects, said it would remove caffeine, guarana and taurine from its products. Phusion, founded by three friends at Ohio State University in 2005, has aggressively marketed its products on college campuses.

Phusion insists its products are safe, comparing them with rum and cokes and Irish coffees. But that's quite a stretch. A 23.5-ounce can of Four Loko - known on campus as "blackout in a can" - contains as much alcohol as four beers and the caffeine equivalent of a cup of coffee. Drinkers get drunk yet remain alert enough to keep drinking, sometimes to bad effect.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found drinkers who consume alcohol mixed with energy drinks are three times more likely to binge drink than other drinkers. Mary Claire O'Brien, a professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest University, last year told the FDA that combining alcohol and caffeine was dangerous. She said that drinking the two together made for a more potent effect than drinking either separately.

"FDA does not find support for the claim that the addition of caffeine to these alcoholic beverages is 'generally recognized as safe,' which is the legal standard," said Joshua M. Sharfstein, the FDA's principal deputy commissioner, in a written statement. "To the contrary, there is evidence that the combinations of caffeine and alcohol in these products pose a public health concern."

The FDA is right. And while removing caffeine from this line of products won't prevent naive drinkers from mixing energy drinks with alcohol, it is a responsible step and sends the right message: Mixing caffeine with alcohol can be dangerous.



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