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Michigan Bans Caffeine-Laced Alcohol Drinks

Michigan has joined Utah in banning the sale of alcohol drinks infused with caffeine and other stimulants.

The Michigan state Liquor Control Commission voted 2-1 Thursday to prohibit the sale of a long list of products that includes Phusion Projects Four Loko blends, United Brands Co. Joose and Max drinks, and Jack Daniels Country Cocktail. 

The commission’s decision followed recent reports from Washington and New Jersey of students being hospitalized after drinking caffeinated malt liquor.

Several universities now bar the sale of the controversial beverages and Pennsylvania’s liquor control board recently asked its licensees to voluntarily stop selling the drinks.  The Chicago City Council is considering a ban while Washington state’s attorney general has not only called for a statewide halt on the sale of the beverages, but is renewing a push for national restrictions.

Washington AG Rob McKenna, who will become president of the National Association of Attorneys General next year, wants the Food and Drug Administration to step in to determine whether caffeine-laced malt liquor is safe under federal regulations.

A year ago, the FDA told nearly 30 manufacturers of the drinks they had 30 days to prove that combining alcohol and caffeine wasn’t dangerous or it would “take appropriate action to ensure that the products are removed from the marketplace.”

There’s been little word from FDA since but Phusion Projects states on its website that the government “is looking into the safety of our product and 40 other products produced by 26 other companies.  We’ve complied with the agency’s request and have submitted a “Generally Regarded as Safe” (GRAS) study, which affirmed that the addition of caffeine to alcohol is indeed safe.” 

Critics say the drinks’ fruit flavors mask the taste of alcohol while the caffeine masks the effect of the alcohol, so people can’t always judge how intoxicated they are.  Four Loko, one of the best-known brands, is 12 percent alcohol.  Along with caffeine and alcohol, ginseng, taurine and guarana are mixed into some of the concoctions. 

Meanwhile, in a news release Friday, Phusion Projects said it has sent nearly 300 letters to college presidents, student life deans and campus alcohol counselors offering financial support for alcohol education efforts on campus, and asking to discuss ways to work together to combat alcohol abuse and underage drinking on college campuses.

The company also posted a rebuttal to the Michigan ban, saying Four Loko has roughly the same amount of caffeine as a tall Starbucks coffee and far less alcohol by volume than hard liquor.  “People have safely combined caffeine and alcohol for years,” the company said, pointing to rum and colas and Irish coffees as “standard fare in bars and restaurants everywhere.”

Responding to criticism that its products’  bright colors and fruit flavors intentionally target young people, the company wrote: ” … even alcoholic beverages without caffeine come in flavors and brightly colored cans. Today bubble gum, raspberry and blueberry vodkas – which have several times the alcohol content of a Four Loko – are all on the market.  Widely-accepted beverages, such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Twisted Tea and Smirnoff Ice, have similar flavors to our products, and our cans are no brighter or more appealing than the blue, red and green labels of established beer brands like Budweiser and Heineken.”

Phusion Project objected to what it said was the Michigan Liquor Control Commission’s recent approval of an Anheuser-Busch product called “Tilt,” suggesting Four Loko has been singled out unfairly.

“When consumed responsibly, our products are just as safe as any other alcoholic beverage,” the manufacturer said.

The Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog, has long sounded warnings about flavored, caffeinated malt beverages; three years ago the group said it scored a victory when Anheuser-Busch discontinued its Spykes brand.  The institute estimates that flavored malt beverages with caffeine are a $3.2 billion industry.

Correction: Although Smirnoff’s Raw Tea was included on the Michigan Liquor Control Commission’s list of banned beverages, the manufacturer says it was listed erroneously:  “Diageo’s Smirnoff Raw Tea was taken off the market more than a year ago for commercial reasons and should not have been included on the Michigan Liquor Control Commission’s list of banned alcohol energy drinks. Further, in accordance with Diageo’s strict marketing code, Diageo never marketed Smirnoff Raw Tea as an energy drink and does not market any other brands that way or make claims on any products implying energizing, stimulating or invigorating properties.”   

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