Kansas liquor officials are taking a hard look at a strong drink that's been banned in three states.
The drink, called Four Loko, mixes the caffeine of an energy drink and the alcohol content of wine in a 23.5-ounce can that sells for about $2 at local liquor stores.
One can contains the alcohol equivalent of a nearly full bottle of wine, combined with the caffeine of three cups of coffee.
Michigan and Washington have banned the malt beverage and similar products after reports that the mixture caused blackouts and, in one case, a heart attack, among college-age drinkers. Oklahoma is phasing the drink out from its store shelves, allowing liquor stores to sell their remaining stock but prohibiting further supplies from being brought into the state.
Freda Warfield, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, said Kansas officials have had no reports of incidents related to the beverage. But they are closely monitoring the situation in other states and an ongoing investigation by the Food and Drug Administration, she said.
Matt Hess, manager of R and J Discount Liquor in Wichita, said the product has been on the shelf since February.
He said he's considered pulling it, but he's waiting for word from the state to see "if they say it's OK."
Initially, the product sold poorly, but controversy has boosted sales, he said.
"The sad thing is, with all the exposure, we have people who don't even know what it is coming in and buying it," he said.
One Four Loko buyer, a young man with a shaved head and tattooed scalp who identified himself only as "Johnny," said "It's the best. Don't cancel it."
The drink will probably remain on Kansas shelves for a while.
Banning it from state-licensed liquor stores would likely require legislative action, Warfield said. The Legislature won't start meeting until January.
Critics say that Four Loko, which comes in a variety of fruity flavors and in brightly colored cans, is explicitly targeted at teens and young adults who might not be aware of the danger of mixing caffeine, a stimulant, with alcohol, a depressant.
"What you get is someone who's drunk, but wide awake," said Brian Smith, spokesman for the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which banned Four Loko and similar drinks on Wednesday. That, he said, makes them more likely to drive drunk or continue drinking to a dangerous blood-alcohol level.
He said that was what happened to a group of nine students at Central Washington University who had to be hospitalized last month after a party featuring the energy-alcohol beverages.
The students had blood alcohol levels ranging from 0.12 to 0.35. Anything more than .30 is considered potentially lethal.
"It's not college students drinking a bunch of beer and getting stupid," Smith said. "The CWU students were all underage... one of them nearly died."
The liquor board's emergency ban will last 120 days and Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire vowed to enact a permanent ban.
"Quite simply, these drinks are trouble," Gregoire said in a statement.
A representative of Phusion Projects, the company that created and makes Four Loko, said no spokesperson was available Thursday and referred inquiries to statements on the company website.
The company portrays itself as "a small business success story," started by three friends at Ohio State University. Starting with a federal loan from the Small Business Administration, they built a company selling products in at least 45 states.
The theme of their comments to regulators in Washington and elsewhere is that their product is being unfairly targeted because the bans don't apply to other caffeine-containing drinks, such as coffee liqueurs.
"If mixing caffeine and alcohol is the most pressing concern, addressing it would be best accomplished by creating laws that apply to the entire caffeinated alcoholic beverage category — not specific, individual products and not just beers or malt-based products," the company said in an open letter to state and federal regulators. "If product-specific bans remain the preferred course of action, we will protect our rights as a business to the fullest extent of the law."
Smith, of the Washington state board, said there's no validity to the company's comparisons to coffee drinks and liqueurs.
Those drinks are far more expensive, marketed to a more mature segment of the drinking public and seldom consumed to intoxication level, he said.
Under pressure from state attorneys general, beer titans Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing removed caffeine from similar products they had brought to market.