Washington state bans 'blackout in can' drinks

Wed Nov 10, 2010 2:48pm EST

* Washington votes to ban alcohol-caffeine drinks

* Ban follows hospitalization of nine youths

* Emergency ban for 120 days while full ban worked out

* Major brewers have stopped mixing alcohol, caffeine

By Bill Rigby

SEATTLE, Nov 10 (Reuters) - Washington state's Liquor Control Board has voted to ban sales of high-alcohol energy drinks, known as "blackout in a can," following the hospitalization of nine students in the state last month.

Washington is the second state to outlaw the highly caffeinated, heavy-alcohol beverages popular with young people after Michigan banned them earlier this month.

The emergency ban will last for 120 days from Nov. 17, while the board goes through the procedure of introducing a permanent ban.

Major brewers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI.BR) and SABMiller (SAB.L) stopped making drinks mixing alcohol and caffeine after pressure from various states, but smaller companies have filled the gap in the market.

In October, nine Central Washington University college students were hospitalized after drinking quantities of Four Loko brand drinks and similar beverages off-campus. According to the university, the blood-alcohol level of the students ranged from .123 to .35, where .30 is considered lethal.

Four Loko, a highly sugared and caffeinated malt liquor made by Phusion Projects, is 12 percent alcohol, which means one 23.5-ounce can is comparable to drinking five or six beers.

Health experts say caffeine suspends the effects of alcohol, allowing people to continue drinking long after they normally would have stopped.

The ban means caffeine-alcohol drinks cannot be sold in grocery stores in the state starting on Nov. 17. Washington state liquor stores did not carry them.

Mainstream companies have withdrawn similar products in the last few years, under threats of legal action by states.

Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser beer, agreed in 2008 to take caffeine out of energy drinks that contain alcohol, such as its Tilt product, after 11 state attorneys general charged the brewer was marketing them to underage drinkers.

The same year MillerCoors, a joint venture between SABMiller and Molson Coors Brewing Co (TAP.N), agreed to remove caffeine from its Sparks energy-alcohol drink. (Reporting by Bill Rigby. Additional reporting by Martinne Geller. Editing by Steve Gorman, Jerry Norton and Robert MacMillan)

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