ELLENSBURG, Wash. – Sugary, high-alcohol energy drinks that are popular with college students who want to get drunk quickly and cheaply came under renewed scrutiny Monday as investigators announced that nine freshmen had been hospitalized after drinking them at an off-campus party.
Several states are considering outlawing the drinks and at least two universities have banned them from campus while the Food and Drug Administration reviews their safety.
Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna called for the drinks to be banned and sent a letter to the FDA on Monday, saying the drinks "present a serious threat to public health and safety."
The issue received new attention after the Oct. 8 party in Roslyn, a picturesque mountain town known as the place where part of the 1990s television series "Northern Exposure" was filmed.
Police first responded to a report of an unconscious female in a grocery store parking lot and learned about the party from her friends. At the home, officers found a chaotic scene, with students from nearby Central Washington University passed out and so intoxicated that investigators thought they had overdosed on drugs.
Nine students who drank a caffeinated malt liquor called Four Loko were hospitalized with blood-alcohol levels ranging from 0.12 percent to 0.35 percent, and a female student nearly died, CWU President James L. Gaudino said. A blood-alcohol concentration of 0.30 percent is considered potentially lethal.
All the hospitalized students were inexperienced drinkers — freshmen ranging in age from 17 to 19. Toxicology results showed no drugs in their bloodstreams, though a small amount of marijuana was reported at the party, university police Chief Steve Rittereiser said.
Some students admitted drinking vodka, rum and beer with Four Loko, which is made by Phusion Projects Inc., of Chicago.
Phusion said in a statement that people have consumed caffeine and alcohol together safely for years. The company said it markets its products responsibly to those of legal drinking age and shares with college administrators the goal of making campuses safe and healthy environments.
"The unacceptable incident at Central Washington University, which appears to have involved hard liquor, such as vodka and rum, beer, our products, and possibly illicit substances, is precisely why we go to great lengths to ensure our products are not sold to underage consumers and are not abused," the statement said.
The FDA sent a warning letter to Phusion Products in November 2009 asking the company for information that shows adding caffeine to alcoholic beverages is safe, and the case remains open, the agency said in a statement Monday.
Four Loko comes in several varieties, including fruit punch and blue raspberry. A 23.5-ounce can sells for about $2.50 and has an alcohol content of 12 percent, comparable to four beers, according to the company's website.
Health advocates say the caffeine in the drink can also suspend the effects of alcohol consumption, allowing a person to consume more than usual.
"It gets you really drunk really fast and it gives you a lot of energy so you're not going to be laying down and sleeping," said 18-year-old CWU freshman Hyatt Van Cotthem of Everett, Wash., who said he's tried the beverage but doesn't drink it because the taste is "nasty." He didn't attend the party.
Regulating such drinks would be a good idea, Cotthem said, because he's seen so many students do dumb things when drinking it. But he and a friend also questioned that the drink alone could have wreaked so much havoc.
"There's no way that Four Loko caused all these people to just pass out," he said.
The nine sickened students have recovered and returned to their classes. No criminal charges have been filed, but Rittereiser said the investigation into the source of the alcohol continues.
Gaudino banned alcoholic energy drinks from CWU's campus Monday, following the president of New Jersey's Ramapo College, who banned the drinks last month after attributing several students' hospitalizations to Four Loko.
"It's not that we'd seen a lot of consumption, but we'd seen enough that it worried us, because it was in situations of extreme intoxication," Ramapo President Peter Mercer said Monday. "Having seen no redeeming social use for it, and seeing the damage and danger it could pose, I ordered a ban."
Mercer said he eagerly awaits the results of the FDA review and supports a measure to ban the drinks in New Jersey.
Utah and Montana have restricted the sale of the caffeinated malt liquors to just state liquor stores. A bill to ban the drinks in Washington state failed in the Legislature earlier this year, but McKenna and Gov. Chris Gregoire said they would support another effort.
McKenna also said his office would review the marketing of such drinks, particularly to minors, to determine if consumer protection laws have been violated. The state previously raised concerns with the nation's two largest brewers, MillerCoors LLC and Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, about similar drinks.
"We never brought a lawsuit against them because they acted like good corporate citizens and removed the products," McKenna said.
Steven Schmidt, a spokesman for the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, said many states feel they need to act quickly on the issue because the drinks are increasing in popularity.
"There's really a sense that people consuming these drinks don't understand how much alcohol they are drinking," he said. "These products pack a punch, and they are relatively inexpensive."
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