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Alcoholic Energy Drinks Under FDA Scrutiny

Cans of Four Loko are seen in the liquor department of a Kwik Stop store on October 27, 2010 in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle
Cans of Four Loko are seen in the liquor department of a Kwik Stop store on October 27, 2010 in Miami, Florida.
Alcoholic Energy Drinks Under FDA Scrutiny
The Food and Drug Administration sent letters to four companies that make alcoholic energy drinks saying the combination of caffeine and alcohol poses "a public health concern." KPBS Reporter Kenny Goldberg joins us to talk about the health effects of these caffeinated alcoholic drinks.

The Food and Drug Administration sent letters to four companies that make alcoholic energy drinks saying the combination of caffeine and alcohol poses "a public health concern." KPBS Reporter Kenny Goldberg joins us to talk about the health effects of these caffeinated alcoholic drinks.


Kenny Goldberg, KPBS Health Reporter.


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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and risen listen to KPBS. Makers of drinks nicknamed blackouts in a can now have to explain to the Food and Drug Administration why the products have not be taken off the market. The FDA has sent warning letters claiming that the addition of caffeine to alcoholic energy drinks constitutes an unsafe food additive. The drinks have been popular with college students here in San Diego and across the country. KPBS health reporter, Kenny Goldberg, has been following this story, and he joins us now. Kenny, good morning.

KENNY GOLDBERG: Good morning, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So what kind of health effects can these beverages have on people who drink them.

KENNY GOLDBERG: Well, if you think about the most popular alcohol caffeine drink, it's called Four Loko, it's about a 23-ounce can. Each can contains as much alcohol as about five beers. So someone who drinks one can of Four Loko, it's like you're binge drinking in one can. And then they're packed with as much caffeine as two cups of coffee. And I spoke to doctor Shawn Evans who's an ER doctor at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, and he talks about the dangers of mixing alcohol and caffeine.

SHAWN EVANS(AUDIO CLIP): What the caffeine does is it gives them the false perception that they have nor energy, that they actually are invigorated, that they've got more confidence, and unfortunately they do such in an environment where they're continuing to become more and more intoxicated.


KENNY GOLDBERG: In other words, Dr. Evans was saying that it invigorates a drunk, that's what the caffeine does. The caffeine masks the alcohol and they really don't know how intoxicated they are, so they just keep drinks.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I think the FDA commissioner in the warning yesterday called it a wide-awake drunk.

KENNY GOLDBERG: That's right. And the federal trade commission got into the and sent a letter to all of these manufacturers saying the products are misleadingly marketed.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How are they marketed?

KENNY GOLDBERG: If you go into a store, and you look at these products, they look like soft drinks they have these comfortable, fruity displays or what have you, fruit flavors, and they're really designed to appeal to under aged drinkers. The manufacturers would never say that, but that's who consumes these productions issue it's the college kids the high school kids. You're in the gonna see an adult drinking a Four Loko.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes, that's very true. So Four Loko is one of these brands that may -- this appears to be having trouble with federal regulators. There's a couple of other brands on the market, one of which Anheuser-Bush, I think, is that the company that took it off the market.

KENNY GOLDBERG: That's correct they had marketed a alcohol caffeine drink called spikes, it was a two-ounce shot of alcohol and caffeine, two ounces is nothing. You're supposed to drink it, I don't know, before you go to work or whatever what it was. But people got so upset about it that they forced Anheuser-Bush to pull spikes from the market. But there are plenty other products that combine alcohol and caffeine. And now the FDA is saying you're either gonna have to reformulate these drinks or prove to us that they're safe.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As the FDA said, "wide-awake drunk," and that kind of makes us smile, and "blackouts in a can" is kind of a flippant term, but actually these drinks apparently are at least accused of causing a number of deaths among college students across the country.

KENNY GOLDBERG: That's right, and there have been cases in a number of states where groups of college students have gotten alcohol poisoning, they've gotten very sick, they have been hospitalized. These drinks are dangerous because as I said earlier, kids tend to drink more of them with the caffeine because they just don't realize how drunk they are.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And that alcohol poisoning really goes to that effect of that caffeine, because indeed, if you can't feel the effects of alcohol, generally what masks people, what stops them from drinking so much that it becomes toxic is because they become too drunk to drink.

KENNY GOLDBERG: That's right or they pas out, they fall asleep, they showdown, but these drinks create the opposite effect. I mean, you're combining a depressant, alcohol, with a still lent, caffeine of that's a very dangerous mix.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So tells exactly what action is being taken against these drinks. What did the FDA do yesterday.

KENNY GOLDBERG: Well, the FDA sent these markers a letter, and basically it says you have 15 days to either reformulate your products, take the caffeine out, or show us that these drinks are safe. Now, what the manufacturer of Four Loko did, they're gonna start manufacturing their product watt caffeine. The guy says it's just not worth fighting the government. He says he's gonna make them without caffeine. But you wonder where the appeal is if you take the caffeine out because the kids won't get that jolt anymore.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, is there any bite in this warning? I mean, if indeed other manufacturers cooperate take the caffeine out of their products, can the FDA SHUT them down or to they get some time to try to make their case?

KENNY GOLDBERG: Well, if they try to defend their drinks as safe, I would imagine they would get some time to make their case, but I think the FDA can force them to pull the drinks off the mark. So I mean, basically I think this action by the FDA and the federal trade commission is really a death knell for these products.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, there have been some cools basically around the country that have tried on their own to ban these kind of caffeine alcohol drinks. Any movement amongst schools here in San Diego?

KENNY GOLDBERG: I don't know about that. There have been some nationwide that have done it. I don't know if any of the San Diego schools have. Of but I understand that some stores, some retailers in San Diego have already begun to pull these drinks from the market. So I think this really does mark a turning point in these things.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, before we have to let you go, Kenny, yesterday you reported on an announcement that Scripps health made that it's planning a $200 billion redevelopment of its medical campus in La Jolla. What can you tell us about that.

KENNY GOLDBERG: Well, what's prompting this move, Scripps officials say, is the state requirement that all hospitals be earthquake safe by 23. Now, Scripps hospital was built in 1964, so it doesn't meet those advanced seismic standards, so they would have to completely rebuild the hospital anyway to meet state requirements. Of and what they decided to do is demolish that hospital and totally revamp this 43-acre campus on the La Jolla site. So they're going to take the hospital down, they're gonna build three hospital towers, a separate outpatient pavilion, a cardiovascular institute, and really create what they do is like a medical campus, a very -- a varied medical campus on the La Jolla site of so it's a 25-year plan, it's really quite a bold move.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Much more expansive than just simple he retrofitting for earthquake safety. How much does competition among other health facilities go into this planning?

KENNY GOLDBERG: I think that is a major factor too. Upon they didn't talk about that, but the fact of the matter is, UCSD has a major presence 234 La Jolla, and the La Jolla population is a very highly sought after population because they have a lot of money and they tend to go in for these intensive, high cost treatments. So it's notice coincidence that they're locating this massive center with the new cardiovascular institute in La Jolla.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do we have any idea when that's gonna get started.

KENNY GOLDBERG: Well, they hope to start seen. They anticipate opening the first hospital tower within I couple of years after they begin construction. I think we need to point out, though, that officials say it won't be easy to raise the $2 billion costs. They don't have all the money now. They don't have a fraction of it, so they're committing to using ongoing revenue, bonds and private donations to raise this money.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Kenny, thank you so much for giving us insight on two big stories. Thank you.

KENNY GOLDBERG: Thanks a lot.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: KPBS health reporter Kenny Goldberg. If you'd like to comment on line, Days. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.