Less than a month after the Four Loko frenzy hit college campuses nationwide, the Food and Drug Administration has cracked down on beverages that combine alcohol and caffeine – and students are taking measures to stockpile the popular drink.
“We are all sold out,” Chris Lee, a manager at Wagner’s Liquor on Wisconsin Avenue, said. “The distributor has stopped sales, so whoever has it in D.C., that’s it.”
On Wednesday, the FDA sent letters to four companies – including Four Loko’s manufacturer, Phusion Projects – warning them that caffeine added to malt beverages is an “unsafe food additive,” according to an FDA press release. In response, students have gone on a buying spree at liquor stores around the area hoping to store up some of the quickly disappearing product.
“All my friends were mentioning and calling me up and we were all like we got to stock up on it before it goes. Keep the party going,” John Oriolo (MSB’11) said. “I was thinking about [stocking up] but I don’t want to be the person who goes in and gets like 90 Four Lokos.”
Questions remain as to the effectiveness of the ban in some students’ minds, however.
“I don’t know if a ban is the best way to stop people from drinking,” Jack Glascott (COL’12) said. “If people want to do something particularly unhealthy they’re going to find a way to do it. If something is banned it just makes people want it that much more because they can’t have it.”
Anam Raheem (COL ’11) agreed. “College kids were able to go out and black out before Four Loko, and they still will after Four Loko.”
But medical professionals see benefits from the ban, even if it will not completely stop dangerous alcohol consumption.
“It is educating people about the risks of combining energy drinks and alcohol,” Dr. Kirsten Hawkins, chief of adolescent medicine at Georgetown University Hospital, said. “It’s not going to stop them, but hopefully it will decrease it.”
The crackdown comes after pressure from lawmakers such as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). In a press release, Schumer applauded the FDA’s decision to limit access to the “deadly brew.”
Criticism of the drink has already caused states such as Michigan and New York to ban Four Loko after incidents involving the drink on college campuses left students hospitalized. There was no legislation banning the product in the District under consideration before the FDA’s announcement, according to Jordan Hutchinson, committee clerk for the D.C. Council Committee on Health. Hawkins emphasized that Four Loko is dangerous despite some students’ lack of concern.
“People don’t realize the amount of alcohol in the drink,” Hawkins said. “One can is considered binge drinking.”
She said Four Loko-type drinks encourage people to start drinking younger.
“It is marketed to teens and young adults,” she said. “We know the rates of binge drinking are higher for those age groups.”
Tessa Telly, social norms coordinator at the Student Health Center, is in favor of the decision.
“I totally support the FDA’s ban. If there is a track record of the drinks being harmful, and possibly being fatal, then something needs to be done about it,” Telly said in an email.
Much of her concern rests with the masking affects of alcohol combined with caffeine.
“We tell students to `let friends know when they’ve had enough’ and `keep track of how many drinks you are consuming.’ How do you follow these tips when the feeling you get from the caffeine is telling you `you’re fine,’ when you’ve actually had too much to drink?”
Opponents of the ban, however, do not see a difference between drinking a Four Loko and consuming Red Bull mixed with vodka or other common caffeine-alcohol mixes.
Phusion Projects announced on Tuesday that it will be removing caffeine from its offerings in anticipation of the FDA’s recommendation.
“We have repeatedly contended – and still believe, as do many people throughout the country – that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe. We are taking this step after trying – unsuccessfully – to navigate a difficult and politically charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels,” the company’s co-founders said in a statement.
Hawkins said the distinction is awareness. Consumers know how much they are drinking when they independently mix alcohol and energy drinks.
“They obviously know what they are doing,” she said.
Some students ultimately feel it is the individual’s, not the government’s, responsibility to curb irresponsible drinking.
“My thought is that if people can’t be responsible with it what are you going to do, you can’t ban everything, so where do you draw the line,” Oriolo said.
– Hoya Staff Writer Sarah Kaplan contributed to this report.