Caffeine and alcohol have been staples on college campuses for decades, but new colorful cans of caffeinated alcoholic beverages targeted at young people have been causing quite a stir in recent months.
The drinks—which have names like Joose, Torque and Four Loko—are growing in popularity among students while rising concerns among healthcare professionals, college administrators and politicians.
The drinks sell for less than three dollars each. They come in large cans covered with colorful graphics that experts and even some students claim make the alcoholic beverages hard to tell apart from non-alcoholic energy drinks. Four Loko, which has been nicknamed “blackout in a can,” is currently at the center of controversy. It combines as much alcohol as a six-pack of beer with more caffeine than a cup of coffee in a convenient 23.5 ounce can.
Four Loko is believed to have caused the sickening of dozens of Central Washington University students, causing the school to place a ban on these types of beverages.
Police found Central Washington students passed out all over a rented house after a party held October 8, 2010. Nine were rushed to the hospital. Authorities who responded to the party said that the students were in such bad condition they initially were believed to be the victims of a date rape drug, but toxicology tests on the students found no evidence of drug use.
An ABC News Health report dated October 20, 2010 told the story of an athletic, otherwise perfectly healthy 19 year old that arrived at the Temple University Hospital emergency room in Philadelphia. He was sweaty and short of breath—and having chest pains.
The young man was suffering a heart attack.
The symptoms were extremely unusual for such a young person, said Dr. Robert McNamara, head of the department of emergency medicine. Tests showed that the patient had none of the usual signs of an unhealthy heart or arteries, and Dr. McNamara added that these symptoms are typically seen in people who have overdosed on cocaine or speed.
After further questioning, the patient admitted he’d been drinking a caffeinated alcoholic drink.
Earlier this month, Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey banned Four Loko and similar drinks, tightened restrictions on guests and increased penalties for underage drinking after 23 people were hospitalized for alcohol intoxication at the start of the fall semester.
Ramapo College President Peter Mercer is encouraging other colleges and the state to follow suit. “There’s no redeeming social purpose to be served by having the beverage,” he told the Associated Press on October 18, 2010.
There’s no question that Four Loko and other alcoholic “energy drinks” look cool and offer drinkers a buzz, but questions are being raised about whether these kinds of products are safe and whether they are improperly marketed to young drinkers.
“The problem is when you put all these things together, it’s a nightmare,” Harris Stratyner, vice president of the alcohol and drug addiction treatment provider Caron Center and an addiction specialist, told Good Morning America on October 26, 2010. “The caffeine may make you feel like you’re not getting drunk as quickly so you may ingest more.”
Stratyner said he saw no reason for caffeine to be added, “other than to give kids an added boost and to get them to purchase more.”
“The FDA needs to determine once and for all if these drinks are safe, and if they’re not, they ought to be banned,” said New York Senator Charles Schumer in a statement in July.
The Food and Drug Administration is questioning the safety of these caffeinated alcoholic drinks, including Four Loko. A press release dated October 27, 2010 announced that federal regulators have threatened to ban caffeinated alcoholic drinks unless the manufacturers can provide conclusive evidence that the drinks are not harmful.
NPR reports that some major manufacturers have stopped making these controversial drinks, but Four Loko pushes on.
Phusion Products, which manufacturers Four Loko, has issued statements on their website regarding the recent publicized incidents in which their product was called out by name.
Among their retorts?
Officials realize that binge drinking by college students, particularly underage college students, is dangerous. Will these caffeinated alcoholic beverages continue to gain popularity or will they be pulled from the shelves?
Only time will tell.
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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