‘Blackout in a Can’: Alcoholic Energy Drinks Keep Wreaking Havoc

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You’ve probably seen it in gas stations or convenience stores. Four Loko, which comes housed in a tall aluminum can emblazoned with graffiti-inspired lettering, looks just like an energy drink — which it is.
More specifically, it’s one of the beverage industry’s newest alcoholic energy drinks, and it’s recently been implicated in some incidents of drunkenness and brutal criminality that made the news.

In early October, three men were abducted and tortured by members of the Latin King Goonies gang in New York City’s South Bronx. Piles of cans of Four Loko were found at the scene. One of the many forms of torture to which the gang subjected one of the men — who was attacked for being gay — was forcing him to consume 10 cans of the beverage. (More on Time.com: 4 Reasons Binge Drinking Is a Public Health Problem)

Four Loko tastes fruity to mask the alcohol content. That fact, along with the kid-friendly packaging and price ($2 to $3 a can), makes it a hit with binge-drinking teens. And like other popular alcopops that have come before it — Sparks, Steel Reserve 211 and Joose — Four Loko, made by Phusion Projects, contains a lot of alcohol and a lot of caffeine. It’s 12% alcohol by volume (that’s more than twice what’s in an equal amount of Budweiser) and it has an unspecified amount of caffeine, though common energy drinks have about two to three times as much caffeine as a Coke. Four Loko also has a bunch of other energy-boosting ingredients like guarana and taurine.

The effect of combining a stimulant (caffeine) with a depressant (alcohol)? You get drunker than you think you are. In a story in TIME Magazine, my colleague John Cloud described it this way:

Alcohol functions in your body pretty much the same whether you mix it with caffeine or not. The problem is, you will feel better if caffeine is present. A 2006 study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found that people who consumed energy drinks with alcohol had significantly less dry mouth and headache than those who drank only alcohol. They also perceived their motor coordination to be better — even though it wasn’t.

Alcoholic energy drinks are a crime against taste — but worse, they trick your brain into believing you’re not as drunk as you are.

“You have a wide awake drunk who may not feel the warning signs of dangerous drinking such as the important subjective effects of tiredness and loss of coordination, which are good signals that it’s time to shut it down and stop drinking,” the public health expert Ken Briggs recently told Washington’s FOX News affiliate. (More on Time.com: Photos: What Booze Looks like Under a Microscope)

That helps explain why the drinks seems to be causing so much trouble. This month, nine female Central Washington University (CWU) students were sent to the hospital from a house party after a night spent drinking Four Loko. Based on the women’s behavior before hospitalization, students, reporters and police speculated that the women had been given a date rape drug. But now, the police say overconsumption of Four Loko caused the women’s illness, leading them to have blood alcohol contents from .123 to .335 (for reference, the legal limit for driving is .08 and anything over .3 can be lethal).

In response, Four Loko’s maker released a statement about the incident, which pointed out that several other substances were available at the party:

In fact, while our product is mentioned only twice in the 44-page police report, hard liquor, vodka, rum or other alcohol is mentioned at least 19 times; beer is mentioned at least 3 times; and illegal drugs or roofies are mentioned at least 14 times — including twice in connection with an individual attending the party with the intention of bringing drugs with him and once in connection with smoking marijuana.

The company also points out that alcohol and caffeine are regularly mixed in traditional drinks like Irish coffee, which contains whiskey and coffee, or rum and Coke. (More on Time.com: Addiction Files: Recovering From Drug Addiction, Without Abstinence)

But these drinks not only have less caffeine and alcohol, they’re also mixed at a bar — as opposed to being sold in easy-drinking cans right next to the energy drinks at the corner convenience store.

CWU has banned Four Loko from campus, following the lead of New Jersey’s Ramapo College, which also banned the stuff on Oct. 19 after 23 students were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. Ramapo’s president Peter Mercer is involved in a measure to further ban the drink from the state. (More on Time.com: Top 10 Long-Forgotten Liquors)

The FDA has now sent letters to several companies that make caffeinated alcoholic beverages, asking them for evidence of the safety of mixing alcohol and caffeine. Washington’s state legislature voted against a measure to ban the beverages in the state earlier this year. But given the frequency of alarming incidents, a push for stronger regulation may be at hand.

More on Time.com:

NewsFeed’s Take On Four Loko