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Caffeinated drunks

Science | With an eye toward health and public safety, the FDA cracks down on high-alcohol energy drinks

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 18, 2010

Some call it "blackout in a can." Four Loko, an energy drink that comes in a variety of fruit flavors and peaks at 12 percent alcohol, costs $2.49 for a tall, 23.5-ounce can. Or at least it used to, before the FDA in mid-November ordered the drink's manufacturer and three other makers of "caffeinated alcoholic beverages," or CABs, to reformulate or stop selling their products.

The FDA banned seven CAB brands with names like Joose and Moonshot, calling the caffeine an "unsafe food additive" for the alcoholic drinks. The agency's decision followed a year-long review and came on the heels of two publicized incidents in Washington and New Jersey, in which several college students had to be hospitalized after drinking Four Loko.

It's no secret that alcohol-free energy drinks like Monster and Red Bull have become wildly popular among teens and young adults over the last decade. One-third say they drink such beverages on a regular basis, seeking energy and alertness-even though Red Bull, to the unenlightened, tastes like a blend of Mountain Dew and Alka-Seltzer.

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But some nightclubs went further, mixing, for instance, Red Bull and vodka to combine the feelings of intoxication and energy, fueling all-night parties. Businesses selling caffeine-infused alcohol sprang up, and from 2002 to 2008 the sales of two leading CAB brands shot from 337,500 gallons to nearly 23 million.

Alcohol is a depressant, caffeine a stimulant. The one makes you sluggish, the other alert. Combine them, and the alcohol is masked by the energizing effect of the caffeine, which experts believe tricks imbibers into thinking they aren't very drunk. So they drink more, behave badly, and as the caffeine wears off find themselves with dangerously high blood-alcohol levels.

Studies show that people who consume energy drinks alongside alcohol are three times as likely to be binge drinkers, and twice as likely to take advantage of someone sexually. Two Florida lawsuits pending against Phusion Projects, the maker of Four Loko, claim the drink is responsible for a shooting death and a car accident injury.

The company's cofounders say their beverages are being unfairly targeted-and point to rum and sodas or Irish coffees that "have been consumed safely and responsibly for years."

They have half a point: Imbibers who want the effects of caffeine and alcohol can still get as much or little as they desire by mixing their own drinks. But those combinations aren't sold in a prepackaged form to be chugged for the purpose of quick, cheap, inebriated energy-unlike Four Loko, the equivalent of five beers and two coffees. The distinction obviously doesn't reach the soul of the problem, but it makes CABs an easy target for the FDA.

Fat cats (& dogs)

Is your dog or cat gaining weight? He or she may be part of a broader trend. Researchers analyzing the weight data of dogs, cats, mice, marmosets, and wild rats living near humans found an overall increase in obesity through several decades. Pets could be gaining weight from too many calories and too little exercise (like us)-but that might not explain why lab rats are fatter. Water toxins or even a fat-inducing virus, which is known to exist, could be a cause-but some say lifestyle factors shouldn't be ruled out.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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