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August 2009: To demonstrate the threat that Four Loko poses to the youth of America, Blumenthal cites an online testimonial from a fan of the drink: “You just gotta drink it and drink it and drink it and drink it and not even worry about it because it’s awesome and you’re just partying and having fun and getting wild and drinking it.” The Chicago Tribune cannot locate that particular comment on Phusion Projects’ website, but it does find this: “I’m having a weird reaction to Four that makes me want to dance in my bra and panties. Please advise.”
September 2009: Eighteen attorneys general ask the FDA to investigate the safety of alcoholic beverages containing caffeine.
November 2009: The FDA sends letters to 27 companies known to sell caffeinated alcoholic beverages, warning them that the combination has never been officially approved and asking them to submit evidence that it is “generally recognized as safe,” as required by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. In addition to Phusion Projects, the recipients include Joose’s manufacturer, United Brands; Charge Beverages, which sells similar products; the PINK Spirits Company, which makes caffeinated vodka, rum, gin, whiskey, and sake; and even the Ithaca Beer Company, which at one point made a special-edition stout brewed with coffee. “I continue to be very concerned that these drinks are extremely dangerous,” says Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, “especially in the hands of young people.”
February 2010: In a feature story carried by several newspapers under headlines such as “Alcopops Only Look Innocent and Can Hook Kids,” Kim Hone-McMahan of the Akron Beacon Journal outlines one scenario in which these extremely dangerous drinks might end up in tiny hands: “Intentionally or by accident, a child could grab an alcoholic beverage that looks like an energy drink, and hand it to Mom to pay for at the register. Without taking a closer look at the label, Mom may think it’s just another brand of nonalcoholic energy beverage.” It does seem like the sort of mistake that Hone-McMahan, who confuses fermented malt beverages with distilled spirits and warns parents about an alcoholic energy drink that was never actually introduced, might make. She explains that the combination of alcohol and caffeine “can confuse the nervous system,” producing “wired, wide-awake drunks.”
July 12, 2010: Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) urges the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Four Loko and products like it. “It is my understanding that caffeine-infused, flavored malt beverages are becoming increasingly popular among teenagers,” he writes. “The style and promotion of these products is extremely troubling.” Schumer complains that the packaging of Joose and Four Loko is “designed to appear hip with flashy colors and funky designs that could appeal to younger consumers.”
July 29, 2010: Schumer, joined by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), urges the FDA to complete its investigation. “The FDA needs to determine once and for all if these drinks are safe, and if they’re not, they ought to be banned,” says Schumer, right before telling the FDA the conclusion it should reach: “Caffeine and alcohol are a dangerous mix, especially for young people.”
August 1, 2010: After a crash in St. Petersburg, Florida, that kills four visitors from Orlando, police arrest 20-year-old Demetrius Jordan and charge him with drunk driving and manslaughter. The St. Petersburg Times reports that Jordan, who “had been drinking liquor and a caffeinated alcoholic beverage and smoking marijuana prior to the crash,” “may have been going in excess of 80 mph when he crashed into the other vehicle.” It notes that a “can of Four Loko was found on the floor of the back seat.”
August 5, 2010: In a follow-up story, the St. Petersburg Times reports that “Four Loko, the caffeine-fueled malt liquor that police say Demetrius Jordan downed before he was accused of driving drunk and killing four people, is part of a new breed of beverages stirring controversy across the country.” It quotes Bruce Goldberger, a toxicologist at the University of Florida, who declares, “I don’t think there’s a place for these beverages in the marketplace.” The headline: “Alcohol, Caffeine: A Deadly Combo?”
August 12, 2010: The Orlando Sentinel, catching up with the St. Petersburg Times, shows it can quote Goldberger too. “It’s a very bad combination having alcohol, plus caffeine, plus the brain of a young person,” he says. “It’s like a perfect storm.” The headline: “Did High-Octane Drink Fuel Deadly Crash?”
September 2010: Peter Mercer, president of Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey, bans Four Loko and other caffeinated malt beverages from campus after several incidents in which a total of 23 students were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. Just six of the students were drinking Four Loko. Mercer later tells the Associated Press, “There’s no redeeming social purpose to be served by having the beverage.”
October 9, 2010: In a story about nine gang members who tied up and tortured a gay man after luring him to an abandoned building in the Bronx by telling him they were having a party, the New York Daily News plays up the detail that they “forced him to guzzle four cans” of the Four Loko he had brought with him. “The sodomized man couldn’t give police a clear account of what he’d gone through,” the paper reports, “possibly because of the Four Loko he was forced to drink.”
October 10, 2010: In a follow-up story, the Daily News reports that Four Loko, a “wild drink full of caffeine and booze,” “is causing controversy from coast to coast,” citing the deadly crash in St. Petersburg.
October 13, 2010: Police in New Port Richey, Florida, arrest Justin Barker, 21, after he breaks into an old woman’s home, trashes the place, strips naked, defecates on the floor, and then breaks into another house, where he falls asleep on the couch. Barker says Four Loko made him do it.
October 15, 2010: Calling Four Loko “a quick and intense high that has been dubbed ‘blackout in a can,’ ” the Passaic County, New Jersey, Herald News notes the Ramapo College ban and quotes Mahwah Police Chief James Batelli. “The bottom line on the product is it gets you very drunk, very quick,” he says. “To me, Four Loko is just a dangerous substance.” The “blackout in a can” sobriquet, obviously hyperbolic when applied to a beverage that contains less alcohol per container than a bottle of wine, originated with Four Loko fans who considered it high praise; one of their Facebook pages is titled “four lokos are blackouts in a can and the end of my morals.”
October 19, 2010: Bruce Goldberger, who co-authored one of the two studies linking caffeinated alcohol to risky behavior, tells the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “the science is clear that consumption of alcohol with caffeine leads to risky behaviors.” Mary Claire O’Brien, the Wake Forest University researcher who co-authored the other study, expresses her anger at the FDA. “I’m mad as a hornet that they didn’t do something in the first place,” she says, “and I’m mad as a hornet that they haven’t done anything yet.”