AG wants to ban drink that hospitalized CWU students
Nine Central Washington University students were hospitalized after drinking Four Loko, a popular beverage containing caffeine and alcohol and known as an "alcoholic energy drink" — or "blackout in a can." Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna said Monday he'll ask the FDA to ban the sale of such products.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A finding that nine Central Washington University students were hospitalized after drinking a popular beverage combining caffeine and alcohol has prompted Gov. Chris Gregoire and Attorney General Rob McKenna to renew calls for a ban on drinks some people call "blackout in a can."
"It's time to bring an end to the sale of alcoholic energy drinks," McKenna said. "They're marketed to kids by using fruit flavors that mask the taste of alcohol, and they have such high levels of stimulants that people have no idea how inebriated they really are."
University officials, at a news conference Monday, said the six women and three men who became sick at a party at Roslyn on Oct. 8 all had consumed a beverage called Four Loko, and that some had other alcohol as well.
Investigators said they found no evidence anyone was given alcohol or drugs without their knowledge, as was initially feared.
About 40 young people may have attended the party at the family vacation home of one CWU student. All of the sickened students are under 21, officials said.
CWU President James L. Gaudino said their blood-alcohol levels ranged from 0.123 to 0.35. A blood-alcohol concentration of 0.30 is considered potentially lethal.
"One young woman was put on a respirator and nearly died," McKenna said in a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), detailing the CWU incident.
McKenna said beverages that combine stimulants "are so intoxicating that they are called 'liquid cocaine' and 'blackout in a can' by teens and young adults."
He said the products "present a serious threat to public health and safety."
Four Loko is among some two dozen products on the market combining a stimulant with alcohol. Officials say a single, 23.5-ounce can of Four Loko, which is 12 percent alcohol, is comparable to drinking five or six beers.
McKenna was among 25 state attorneys general to request last year that the FDA examine the beverages. They included evidence they said indicates the products pose a growing public-safety risk.
After receiving that request, FDA officials sent a letter to the manufacturers of the products, threatening to ban the drinks unless their makers demonstrated they are safe.
If the FDA does not ban the drinks, McKenna said, he'll join the Washington State Liquor Control Board in calling for the Legislature to prohibit the sale of them in this state.
Gregoire, in a statement Monday, said, "I am relieved that drugs were not secretly slipped into drinks, as many originally feared. However, I am concerned about the rapid market growth of pre-mixed alcohol energy drinks and their popularity with young people."
Gregoire said she backed a proposal in the Legislature earlier this year to ban the drinks. The proposal, recommended by the state liquor board, passed in the House but did not come to a vote in the Senate.
"Consensus among the medical community is growing: Combining alcohol with energy drinks is a dangerous mix," the governor said.
College officials said investigators looking into the Roslyn party have found no evidence anyone was sexually assaulted or that women were "targeted." Those concerns were triggered partly by erroneous early reports that the victims were 11 women and one man.
Brian Smith, spokesman for the state liquor board, said, "It's a really dangerous mix to put together caffeine or other stimulants with a sedative like alcohol. ... The effect is you have a wide-awake drunk. People don't realize they are as drunk as they are."
Smith said the products are not carried in state liquor stores but are easily accessible at many convenience stores and often are placed on store shelves near energy drinks. The colorful cans and fruit flavors clearly are aimed at young drinkers, he said.
Health experts have said caffeine suspends the effects of alcohol, allowing people to continue drinking long after they normally would have stopped.
The incident with CWU students was not the first time Four Loko has been cited as the cause of a poisoning. Last month, 23 students at a college in New Jersey were hospitalized after drinking the product.
A company official recently defended the beverage, noting that long-familiar cocktails such as Irish coffee and rum-and-cola have combined alcohol with a stimulant. A cocktail of vodka and Red Bull has been popular with some young drinkers in recent years.
"Mixing caffeine and alcohol has been around a long time. It's nothing new or novel," said Jaisen Freeman, a co-founder of Chicago-based Phusion Projects. He said the company's ad campaign makes it clear the product is not an energy drink, and labels on the cans say it should not be used by minors.
At CWU on Monday, Gaudino announced a campus ban of alcoholic energy drinks and called for more research on their effects.
"The health and safety of our students has to come first," Gaudino said. "We need to make sure that we're sending a strong message to students about the dangers of AEDs, and we need to know more about the way it affects health and behavior."
Professor Ken Briggs, chairman of Central's Department of Physical Education, School & Public Health, said Four Loko and similar products are "a binge drinker's dream" because the caffeine and other stimulants allow a person to ingest larger volumes of alcohol without passing out.
The announcement Monday does not end the investigation into the Roslyn party. Detectives still are seeking to determine who provided alcohol for the event.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report. Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or email@example.com
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.