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Originally published Wednesday, October 20, 2010 at 7:05 PM

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"Blackout in a can" worries colleges

Officials say spiked energy drinks are being mixed with stimulants and booze

The Record (Hackensack N.J

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Binge drinking among adolescents and young adults is not new, but authorities are warning about a dangerous new twist with an increased use of spiked energy drinks that deliver a potent mix of stimulants and booze.

The fruity drinks, such as Four Loko, lead to a quick and intense high that has been dubbed "blackout in a can."

Ramapo College this month banned the caffeinated alcoholic beverages, tightened restrictions on guests and increased penalties for underage drinking after a raucous start to the fall semester in which 23 people were hospitalized for alcohol intoxication, school officials said.

Four Loko was involved in some of the incidents at the Mahwah, N.J., campus, and the township's police chief is warning that the drink is being used by even younger students.

Complaints were brought against three juveniles from Mahwah High School last week after they were found to be in possession of or intoxicated by Four Loko, Chief James Batelli said.

"The bottom line on the product is it gets you very drunk, very quick," Batelli said. "To me, Four Loko is just a dangerous substance."

The drink comes in 23.5-ounce cans and has an alcohol content of 12 percent — the equivalent of four beers. Four Loko is cheap — generally selling for less than $3 per can. It's carbonated and comes in a variety of fruity flavors — making it popular with underage drinkers, experts say.

It is sold only in liquor stores in New Jersey, but it can be sold in convenience stores in other states, where clerks may not be as vigilant about checking for underage drinkers.

The packaging is similar to that of nonalcoholic energy drinks — colorful and graphic — which appeals to teenagers but could also allow the drinks to fly under the radar of parents and educators.

"I think it's clear they are marketing to young people," said David Schardt, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

Batelli said his department is working with officials in nearby Rockland County, N.Y., just across the state line from Mahwah, about stepping up enforcement of drinking age prohibitions there.

The chief also said he is preparing a letter to ask the state attorney general to look into the marketing of Four Loko and other caffeinated alcoholic beverages. Attorneys general in New York, Connecticut and California have begun similar probes, and the federal Food and Drug Administration is evaluating the safety of Four Loko and caffeinated alcoholic beverages made by 29 other companies.

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Four Loko and Joose are among the biggest brands in the category. The makers of three of the drinks: Sparks, Tilt and Bud Extra, withdrew or reformulated their products after the FDA began looking at them. Those products were made by larger companies, such as MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch, while Four Loko and many of the other drinks are made by smaller breweries less responsive to public pressure, experts said.

"There doesn't seem to be a concerted effort to deal with this," Schardt said.

He added that the FDA has said mixing alcohol and caffeine had never been approved by the agency.

The FDA has estimated that as many as a quarter of college students drink the alcohol-laced energy drinks. Other colleges in North Jersey surveyed this week did not report specific problems with the beverages, but the head of the New Jersey Prevention Network said the drinks were "on the radar. We are concerned ... it is a problem here," said Diane Litterer, executive director of the group.

"It's certainly a trend, and we need to raise awareness," she said. "We're looking at what we can do."

The drinks generally have alcohol contents ranging from 6 percent to 12 percent, with Four Loko at the high end of the range. Students have also been mixing up their own concoctions — adding alcohol to regular energy drinks — for some time, she said.

The stimulants in the drinks initially mask the effects of the alcohol, so people keep drinking until they are severely intoxicated, the experts say.

"Caffeine clearly makes people more alert, but that doesn't make you less drunk," Schardt said. "There's a real risk of these kids getting hurt."

Schardt, Batelli and others say they worry about the effects of the combination and the possibility of sexual assaults and other attendant problems that come with serious intoxication.

Batelli praised Ramapo President Peter Mercer for being aggressive in banning the drinks on campus.

"He's admitting the problem; the other colleges put the blinders on," Batelli said. "I don't think Mahwah is any different from anywhere else. You're sticking your head in the sand if you don't think it's in your school."

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