WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration is expected to find that caffeine is an unsafe food additive to alcoholic drinks, essentially banning them, and manufacturers will then be warned that marketing caffeinated alcoholic beverages could be illegal.
The FDA ruling, which could come as soon as this week, "should be the nail in the coffin of these dangerous and toxic drinks," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who has pushed the Obama administration to ban the beverages, said Tuesday. Federal regulators would not confirm Schumer's announcement that a ban was imminent.
While there is little known medical evidence that the drinks are less safe than other alcoholic drinks, public health advocates say the drinks can make people feel more alert and able to handle tasks like driving. A Wake Forest University study found that students who combine caffeine and alcohol are more likely to suffer alcohol-related injuries than those drinking alcohol without caffeine.
College students have been hospitalized after drinking the beverages, including the popular Four Loko. That beverage comes in several varieties, including fruit punch and blue raspberry. A 23.5-ounce can sells for about $2.50 and has an alcohol content of 12 percent, comparable to four beers, according to the company's website.
Four states — Washington, Michigan, Utah and Oklahoma — have banned the beverages, and other states are considering similar action. Police in Mesa, Ariz., said an "extremely intoxicated" teenager smashed her SUV into a tree Sunday morning after reportedly playing "beer pong" with Four Loko.
Last year the FDA notified more than two dozen manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages that it had never specifically approved the addition of caffeine to alcoholic drinks and began studying whether it is unsafe and should be outlawed. The agency noted the mix's growing popularity among college students and its potential health and safety issues.
The FDA said then it had not reached a conclusion about its safety but cited concerns from state attorneys general from several states who contended the drinks appeal to underage drinkers and encourage reckless behavior.
FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey would not confirm any upcoming action but said the agency recognizes "this very important public health issue" and will announce the results of its review when it is complete. The Federal Trade Commission, which would deal with marketing issues, declined to comment.