Alcoholic energy drinks are facing growing public scrutiny. Several states want to ban canned, caffeinated alcoholic beverages.
In Washington state, nine college freshmen landed in the hospital recently with near-lethal blood alcohol levels after drinking a caffeinated malt beverage called Four Loko, according to law enforcement officials.
Police reports describe chaos at the October incident, where officers found female freshmen unable to talk or sit up, lying on mattresses in a basement near Central Washington University, about two hours east of Seattle.
Police shuttled loads of intoxicated freshmen back to campus and took the worst cases to the hospital. One student almost died, according to the police reports. At first, investigators thought the students had been drugged, but it turns out they were drinking Four Loko.
'A Single Mistake Can Be Deadly'
Now, Washington's Attorney General Rob McKenna wants state lawmakers to ban these types of drinks.
"The wide availability of alcoholic energy drinks means that a single mistake can be deadly. If you're a 135-pound woman [and] you drink two of these Four Lokos ... you can reach the level of toxicity for alcohol poisoning," McKenna says.
Eighteen attorneys general have pressured the Food and Drug Administration to look into the drink's ingredients and determine whether it is safe to consume.
McKenna criticizes Four Loko's brightly colored cans that look like regular energy drinks, coming in flavors such as lemonade, blue raspberry and fruit punch.
Jeff Wright, co-owner of Phusion Projects, which makes Four Loko, says his company should not be blamed for the Central Washington students being sent to the hospital. "It's kind of unfair in this example that our product is being singled out," Wright says. "I mean, according to the police report, there was hard alcohol at this function. There were multiple different types of alcohol there."
But, with no serving recommendations, calorie count or caffeine content on the can's label, it is awfully hard for consumers to figure out exactly what's in a can of Four Loko and how much is safe to drink.
Phusion Projects will give only an estimate of how much caffeine is in its drink: One can has about as much caffeine as a six-pack of Diet Coke. One can also fills an empty wine bottle and in fact, contains about as much alcohol as a bottle of wine.
Blackout In A Can
In the student commons of Washington State University in Richland, Wash., most students say they do not drink Four Loko.
But Jarod Franklin, 23, says he has used these drinks to the point of blacking out. He and his friends liked them because of the buzz the feeling of energized euphoria.
"We would start to lose those inhibitions and then [it would be like], 'How did you get a broken knuckle?' 'Oh, I punched through a three layer of ice [because] you bet me I couldn't,'" Franklin says.
Franklin says he no longer drinks Four Loko, because he did not like how he felt afterward and spending the money on it.
In Washington and across the country, schools are trying to educate students about the dangers of being wide-awake and drunk. Many schools, like Central Washington University and the University of Rhode Island, have already banned the drinks.