With the recent ubiquity of Four Loko cans across campus, including whispers of several Four Loko mixers and parties, Gannett Health Services is becoming increasingly concerned with student consumption of the alcoholic energy drink.
“Four Loko goes down pretty quickly because of the sweetness,” said Deborah K. Lewis, alcohol projects coordinator at Gannett. “Drinking a whole can is the equivalent of having almost 5 shots or 5 beers.”
Four Loko’s name is derived from its four main ingredients: caffeine, taurine, guarana and alcohol. Each 23.5 oz can is typically priced at around $2.50, and the brand’s nine flavors — ranging from Cranberry Lemonade to Watermelon — often contain more than 60 grams of sugar and around 660 calories.
“There are many more injuries reported with mixed drinks than with just alcohol alone because caffeine only adds to the illusion of invincibility that alcohol creates,” said Sharon Dittman, associate director of community relations at Gannett. “This is a drink that is marketing itself specifically to the younger demographic.”
Phusion Projects, the makers of Four Loko, is a youthful company itself, founded by three Ohio State University graduates in 2005. The company has grown quickly, as has the popularity of their product line. According to The Wall Street Journal, in 2009, Four Loko ranked fourth in national sales growth at 7-Eleven convenience stores compared to other alcoholic energy drinks. Joose, manufactured by United Brands Co. Inc., ranked number one.
Four Loko masks the taste of alcohol with its heavy amounts of sugar and carbonation. According to Lewis, the added potency of caffeine can leads to potential negative repercussions like blackouts, unwanted sex, or alcohol poisoning.
Jaisen Freeman, managing partner and co-founder of Phusion Projects, the makers of Four Loko, defended his product.
“Combining caffeine, sugar and alcohol is not new or novel,” Freeman said. “People have safely enjoyed the practice for years.”
Freeman stressed that Four Loko’s ad campaign goes beyond federal and state law requirements in making sure that their products cannot be confused with energy drinks. Each Four Loko can advises minors to respect the law and not drink.
Nonetheless, underage incidents with Four Loko continue to gain press. In May 2010, four teens from White Plains, N.Y. were hospitalized with alcohol poisoning after drinking Four Loko. On campus, the Cornell police reported two incidents from this semester alone involving Four Loko, both of which ended with each student receiving serious medical attention. Deputy Chief David M. Honan declined to provide further details.
According to Freeman, in November 2009, the Food and Drug Administration sent a letter to Phusion Projects and about 30 other companies that manufacture caffeinated alcoholic beverages. The FDA requested that these companies provide a report with data that determines whether adding caffeine to an alcoholic beverage is safe.
“An independent panel of scientific and food safety experts examined the effect of caffeine when added to alcoholic beverages,” Freeman said. “The panel unanimously concluded that combining caffeine and alcohol is safe. We submitted this report to the FDA for its review.”
According to Freeman, Phusion is still waiting on the official FDA response to their report.
Freeman also noted that responsible alcohol use requires cooperation from everyone — federal, state, and local governments, law enforcement, retailers, community leaders, parents and consumers.
“We are proud of the work we do to ensure our products are used properly and only by adults of legal drinking age. But we can’t do it alone,” Freeman stated.