Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

States Move To Ban Four Loko And Similar Drinks, As Feds Sit On Sidelines

Cans of Four Loko are stocked in the liquor department of a convenience store in Miami. One can contains about as much caffeine as a six-pack of Diet Coke and as much alcohol as a bottle of wine.
Joe Raedle
/
Getty Images
Cans of Four Loko are stocked in the liquor department of a convenience store in Miami. One can contains about as much caffeine as a six-pack of Diet Coke and as much alcohol as a bottle of wine.

Almost a year ago the Food and Drug Administration started nosing around the companies that combine alcohol and caffeine into drinks like Four Loko.

In letters to almost 30 companies, the agency pressed for a justification of the safety of the combination. What's happened since? Not much.

The regulator still hasn't made a decision about whether it's OK for the drink makers to mix loads of alcohol and caffeine in a single can. Yet reports of health problems on college campuses keep piling up.

So, a growing number of states are taking action on their own. Washington, where nine college students were hospitalized recently after becoming intoxicated, is the latest state to ban caffeine-boosted alcohol drinks. Michigan and Oklahoma also have done so.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) is on the FDA's case for hemming and hawing. "The FDA needs to determine once and for all if these drinks are safe, and if they're not, they ought to be banned,” he said in July.

Yesterday, he turned up the heat on his home state's liquor regulators in a letter seeking a ban on the boozy caffeine concoctions in New York after the the death of a young woman who reportedly drank some Four Loko.

"Studies have shown that caffeinated alcoholic beverages raise unique and disturbing safety concerns, especially for younger drinkers," Schumer wrote. And, though he expects the FDA to "soon issue a decision banning these harmful and destructive drinks," he asked the New York Liquor Authority to move ahead now.

The makers of the drinks defend them. Phusion Projects, creator of Four Loko, says it has submitted to the FDA a study by independent experts that found mixing alcohol and caffeine is safe.

In an open letter to regulators posted Wednesday, the company's founders wrote:

While we don't agree with the notion that mixing caffeine and alcohol is inherently unsafe, we do agree with the goal of keeping adults of legal age who choose to drink responsibly as safe and as informed as possible.

A big problem, as the company sees it, is the growing legal patchwork concerning the drinks. Phusion Projects seeks "uniformity in how the laws are written, applied and enforced," the letter said. "And we want to work with you, not against you, in this effort."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.