Regulators warn on "blackout in a can" drinks

NEW YORK Wed Nov 17, 2010 6:17pm EST

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Regulators warned makers of alcoholic energy drinks often called "blackout in a can" that their products are unsafe and violate federal laws, following a public outcry and several state bans.

The Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters on Wednesday to four companies -- Phusion Projects LLC, United Brands Co, New Century Brewing Co and Charge Beverages -- charging that their drinks combining alcohol and caffeine were unsafe.

The drinks' brand names include Four Loko, Joose, Moonshot and Core High Gravity.

"There is evidence that the combinations of caffeine and alcohol in these products pose a public health concern," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the FDA's principal deputy commissioner.

At the same time, the Federal Trade Commission warned the companies that their marketing may be deceptive or unfair.

"Consumers might mistakenly assume that these beverages are safe because they are widely sold," said David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The sweetened drinks, which have high alcohol and caffeine contents, are often called "blackout in a can." They have grabbed headlines across the country in recent weeks after nine underage college students in Washington state were hospitalized after drinking quantities of Four Loko and similar beverages off-campus.

They have been banned in states including Washington and Michigan.

Health experts say mixing alcohol and caffeine is dangerous because the stimulant masks the depressant effects of the alcohol, allowing people to continue drinking long after they would have otherwise stopped.

Major brewers, including Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, the combined U.S. operations of SABMiller and Molson Coors Brewing Co stopped making caffeinated alcohol drinks in 2008 amid pressure from state authorities, but smaller manufacturers have filled the gap.

Four Loko, one of the most popular of these drinks, comes in fruit flavors and brightly colored cans. It is 12 percent alcohol, meaning that one 23.5-ounce can is comparable to drinking four or five beers, plus a high dose of added caffeine, taurine and guarana.

The warning letters request that the manufacturers inform the agencies within 15 days of the specific steps that will be taken to remedy their violation of federal laws governing safety and fair trade, and prevent their recurrence.

If the FDA believes that the violation continues to exist, the agency said it may pursue enforcement action that could include seizure of the products or an injunction to prevent the firms from producing the products.

White House Drug Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske commended the agencies for acting to curb the sale of drinks he said were "designed, branded and promoted to encourage binge drinking".

"These drinks are especially unhealthy and dangerous because they combine alcohol and caffeine -- and present further concern when used by young people," Kerlikowske said in a statement. "Acting early to protect public health is critical and a vital component of the Obama Administration's effort to reduce drug use and its consequences."

Phusion Projects, which makes Four Loko, said on Tuesday it would remove caffeine and other stimulants from all of its beverages, just hours after U.S. Senator Charles Schumer predicted the FDA warning on his website.

"We are taking this step after trying -- unsuccessfully -- to navigate a difficult and politically charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels," Phusion's three co-founders and managing partners said in a statement on the company's website.

(Reporting by Martinne Geller; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Dave Zimmerman)