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Kansas bans Four Loko, other caffeinated malt drinks

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Nov. 22, 2010, at 4:09 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010, at 6:24 a.m.

No more Four Loko for Kansas.

The state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control notified liquor retailers today to pull the controversial caffeine-and-alcohol beverage — along with some competitors' similar but lesser-known drinks — from store shelves.

Initially, the department had said it would take an act of the Legislature to ban the beverages, which are already prohibited in several other states.

But a recent decision by the federal Food and Drug Administration cleared the way for the department to invoke its authority to immediately pull products that are deemed dangerous to consumers, said ABC spokeswoman Freda Warfield.

Kansas law "grants the director of alcoholic beverage control broad discretionary powers to govern the traffic of alcoholic liquor in such a mannet as will promote the public health and welfare," ABC Director Thomas Groneman wrote in a letter to liquor store owners. "Based on the FDA's finding and general knowledge of the effects of caffeine and alcohol on the human body, I find that these alcoholic energy drinks do not promote the public health and welfare and must be withdrawn for sale in Kansas."

At least four other states have banned the caffeinated malt beverages.

They came under fire after nine students at Central Washington University had to be hospitalized and a 19-year-old Michigan man suffered a heart attack after drinking the beverage.

Groneman's letter rescinds the department's approval and orders a recall of all flavors of four branded beverages: Four Loko, Four MaXed, Joose and Max.

Four Loko and Four MaXed are distributed by Phusion Products, a Chicago company started in 2005 by three college friends from Ohio State University.

Joose and Max are made by San Diego-based United Brands and were introduced in 2006.

Both companies have defended the caffeine-alcohol mix.

However, Phusion agreed Tuesday to remove the caffeine and other stimulants from future versions of its products.

"We are taking this step after trying — unsuccessfully — to navigate a difficult and politically-charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels," said a statement from Phusion's co-founders and managing partners, Chris Hunter, Jeff Wright and Jaisen Freeman. "We have repeatedly contended — and still believe, as do many people throughout the country — that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe. If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees that have been consumed safely and responsibly for years would face the same scrutiny that our products have recently faced."

"We hoped that clear, consistent, industry-wide standards regulating pre-packaged caffeinated alcoholic beverages would be the outcome of these conversations. We also hoped others would share our commitment to transparency and fairness."

United Brands also issued a statement after the FDA labeled the product as dangerous.

"As the creator of this category of products, United Brands has always taken pride in the high quality of our products and we will continue to lead in the development of Joose products, " Michael Michail, CEO and president of the company, said in a statement.

He said the company knows of no one who was injured by its product.

"We respect the decision of the FDA, will be reviewing the details of the new guidelines, and will be aligning new FDA rules with the demands of our loyal consumer base," Michail said. "And, as we always have, will market Joose products in a legal and responsible manner."

Competing products made by beer titans Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co. have already been decaffeinated.

In justifying a ban in the state of Washington, officials said the beverages differ from traditional coffee-containing drinks because they are much stronger and targeted at a younger, less-mature drinking population.

Four Loko and Joose are sold in brightly colored, 23.5-ounce, nonresealable cans. Each can contains the alcohol content of about a bottle of wine.

Regulators say the high concentration of caffeine — roughly the equivalent of three cups of coffee — masks some of the depressant effect of the alcohol, so that users consume more and are more likely to engage in risky behavior such as drunken driving.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527.

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