By now you may have heard about the fracas surrounding Four Loko and other energy drinks that combine high amounts of alcohol with huge doses of caffeine. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDS) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Tuesday issued warning letters to the four U.S. companies that mix alcohol and caffeine in their drinks, essentially telling the companies to stop production unless they want their products / manufacturing facilities to be seized.
I have read quite a bit about this, including the opinions that many people have published. First, the facts. The FDA states that Four Loko and similar alcoholic energy (caffeine-laced) drinks caffeine can mask certain effects of intoxication, leading people to put themselves in dangerous and life-threatening situations. The FDA said it worked with scientists who studied the drinks for a year before taking action.
Four Loko, by the way, came on the market in August of 2008, and its sales soared to about $200 million after the FDA convinced Anheuser-Busch (Tilt) and MillerCoors (Sparks) to bow out of the alcoholic energy drink business in 2009. The 23.5-ounce Four Loko is 12% alcohol by volume, equal to about four beers, and with three times the amount of caffeine as a regular cup of coffee – all for less than $3 in many cases.
The FTC has stated that caffeine is an “unsafe food additive” under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The FTC further stated that there is “good reason to believe” caffeinated alcohol drinks pose significant risks to consumer health and safety.
The FDA and FTC have made a medical case against these drinks, so let’s go ahead and assume the medical evidence is there. At face value, it seems to make sense that these products should be pulled from the shelves immediately. But there is also a huge gray area here that calls into question the government’s rights and roles in this matter.
There is no mistaking the fact that other drinks that contain alcohol and caffeine have been around for ages – the rum and coke, Irish Coffee, and more recently, the Vodka and Red Bull. Does the government step in and ban these drinks as well? Jack Daniel’s even sold Jack & Coke in a can for some time. But now, regardless of how much caffeine is mixed in with alcohol in a can, this is an unlawful substance – but only if prepared together at manufacturing.
The whole fracas began when numerous college students in Washington state got obliterated on Four Loko and ended up in the hospital. One college student in Florida drank himself into oblivion on Four Loko before putting a gun to his head and committing suicide. Now his family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Phusion Projects, the manufacturer of Four Loko.
So, the question is, now that the government has started this ban on caffeine and alcohol drinks, where does it end? How responsible is the manufacturer of Four Loko versus the manufacturer of XYZ Whiskey if someone gets wasted on their products and gets deathly sick or does something really stupid? How much responsibility is on the bartender, or bar owner who allows his employees to mix Vodka and Red Bulls all night long?
These are many interesting questions and concerns that must be looked at by various stakeholders in the alcohol business. And ultimately, and perhaps unfortunately, many of these questions will be answered in court.
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