05 November 2010

Punch Drunk


A highly potent, caffeine-laced cocktail-in-a-can is on the radar at the U and other campuses.

What looks like an energy drink, tastes like fruit punch and packs the alcohol wallop of five shots?

A new crop of caffeinated booze beverages that is raising concerns coast to coast and sending some people, many of them college students, to emergency rooms with alcohol poisoning.

Four Loko, a caffeinated malt liquor that has been dubbed "blackout in a can," made headlines last month when nine freshmen at Central Washington University were hospitalized after drinking it at a party.

Several schools have since banned alcohol energy drinks on campus, and Harvard University last week issued an e-mail warning to students, urging them not to drink Four Loko or similar drinks. On Thursday, Michigan banned alcohol-infused energy drinks. And the Food and Drug Administration is reviewing their safety.

That some college students experiment with alcohol -- and sometimes overdo it -- is hardly a news flash.

But what troubles some about Four Loko and similar beverages is the potent combination of sugar, caffeine and alcohol in one dose. Four Loko contains 12 percent alcohol, about the same as wine, but while wine is typically served in a 5-ounce glass, Four Loko comes in a 23.5-ounce can.

"It's the equivalent of 4.7 standard drinks -- like five beers or five shots in a can," said Dana Farley, associate program director at the University of Minnesota's Boynton Health Service.

The malt liquor beverage comes in sweet, fruity flavors like watermelon and lemonade, and includes trendy ingredients like taurine and guarana, popular in energy drinks, in addition to caffeine.

"The sweetness masks the taste of the alcohol, and the caffeine masks the effects of the alcohol," Farley said. "My concern is that novice drinkers -- many first-year students -- may drink Four Loko thinking they're having a drink or two without realizing that, in fact, they're having five to 10 drinks."

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