Groups agree to pull Four Loko, other caffeinated alcoholic drinks

Franchot brokers deal to curtail sales in Maryland

November 17, 2010|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's two largest alcohol trade groups instructed their members Wednesday to stop selling alcoholic drinks infused with caffeine, a voluntary move to counter what Comptroller Peter Franchot called "a clear public health and safety threat."

The agreement followed bans by several states of drinks such as Four Loko, increasingly popular among young drinkers for inducing a state that senior Food and Drug Administration official Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein described as "wide-awake drunk." Officials have linked the drinks to blackouts, alcohol poisoning, car accidents and assaults.

Hours after Franchot announced the agreement with the industry groups, the FDA issued letters to four beverage makers calling caffeine an "unsafe food additive" to alcoholic drinks and warning that the government could seize their products if they do not remove them from the market or prove that they are safe.

The Chicago-based maker of Four Loko, meanwhile, announced that it would remove caffeine, and also guarana and taurine, from the drink.

"We have repeatedly contended – and still believe, as do many people throughout the country — that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe," Phusion Projects founders Chris Hunter, Jeff Wright and Jaisen Freeman said. "We are taking this step after trying — unsuccessfully — to navigate a difficult and politically charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels."

The fast-moving developments Wednesday followed a barrage of a year-long FDA review, weeks of behind-the-scenes discussions in Maryland and a barrage of news coverage of the drinks and the mayhem for which they have been blamed.

Franchot, who as comptroller is the state's top alcohol regulator, said he had expected some move from the FDA, but pursued the voluntary ban in case the federal process became drawn-out.

"For the sake of all Marylanders," he said, "we need to get these products off the shelves as soon as possible."

The FDA's action gives the drink makers 15 days to stop mixing caffeine with alcohol.

"This is a very serious step that the FDA is taking," said Sharfstein, the FDA's principal deputy commissioner and a former Baltimore health commissioner. "We are telling the companies that it is our assessment that the product is being illegally marketed."

Sharfstein said the caffeine masks the affects of the alcohol, leading drinkers to feel "wide-awake drunk."

"A lot of states have moved on this and this is fine," Sharfstein said. "I totally understand if companies, states, distributors or companies take action in advance of anything the FDA can do."

It is unclear how popular the drinks are in Maryland. Franchot's office does not keep statistics by product, and industry lobbyists said they did not have access to the information.

Nationally, the drinks have grown in popularity since first becoming widely available in 2002. That year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, the United States consumed 337,500 gallons of caffeine-infused alcohol. By 2008, consumption had grown to 22.9 million gallons.

The often fruity drinks are popular among the young, who say they like the way the caffeine mitigates the soporific effects of the alcohol. According to the CDC, the drinks are "regularly consumed" by 31 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 17 and 34 percent between 18 and 24.

In announcing the Maryland deal Wednesday, Franchot cited the death of Courtney Lee Spurry, a 21-year-old St. Michael's woman who news reports say was killed in a car accident this month after drinking Four Loko.

"You have people who feel they can drive, but they really cannot function," Franchot said.

The Maryland deal is not binding and does not make the product illegal. The Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association, a group of 22 businesses that distribute most of the alcohol in the state to bars and stores, agreed unanimously to stop importing caffeinated alcoholic drinks, said Nick Manis, a lobbyist for the group.

"No additional product will be entering the state," Manis said.

The voluntary ban won't prevent the businesses from distributing the supplies left in warehouses, but Manis said that his clients anticipated the action and have not ordered the product in weeks.

Also signing on to the agreement was the board of the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, which represents about 1,600 of the state's roughly 6,000 licensed alcohol stores and bars. The group's board of directors Wednesday voted to ask members to yank the product from their shelves, though individual liquor stores and bars may determine if and when they want to comply.

"This is all moving very fast," said Steve Wise, a lobbyist for the group. "A lot of folks thought it was the responsible thing to do."

Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist for two major wine and spirits wholesalers, said his clients would not import the drink.

The agreement won't preclude lawmakers from pursuing a complete ban in Maryland. The possibility of legislation was floated by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who presided over the Board of Public Works Wednesday at which Franchot announced the deal.

"The legislature is pretty good at responding to risks and harm to public safety," he said later.

Franchot said he preferred working out a solution with the industry, which he said was faster and more efficient than contending with the legislative process.

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