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Ban makes students loco for Loko

Joe Podelco / Lantern photographer

The lights are out for the “blackout in a can” and similar products, and some students are going loco for Four Loko as a result.

Aaron Fisher was among dozens of Ohio State students who stocked up Wednesday on the drink that the Food and Drug Administration declared “unsafe” and that will no longer be sold in Ohio after its makers voluntarily remove it from store shelves in the state.

Immediately after hearing the announcement, Fisher went to Campus Corner, a vendor at 16th Avenue and High Street, to fill a shopping cart with the drinks. He purchased 50 cans of Four Loko, which he transported in four crates stacked in a push-cart.

“I will probably crack one open tonight,” said Fisher, a third-year in political science.

Fisher and other students’ frenzies came as a result of several announcements issued Wednesday about Four Loko and other caffeinated alcoholic beverages. Four Loko contains 12 percent alcohol and as much caffeine as a 12-ounce coffee.

The FDA said stimulant-and-alcohol products such as Four Loko “present a public health concern.”

“FDA does not find support for the claim that the addition of caffeine to these alcoholic beverages is ‘generally recognized as safe,’ which is the legal standard,” said Joshua M. Sharfstein, the principal deputy commissioner of FDA, in a statement.

The FDA issued warning letters to four manufactures of caffeinated alcoholic beverages to inform the companies that the products violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, according to the release.

Companies who received warning letters include Charge Beverages Corp., distributor of Core High Gravity HG and Lemon Lime Core Spiked; New Century Brewing Co. LLC, distributor of Moonshot; United Brands Company Inc., distributor of Max and Joose; and Phusion Projects LLC, distributor of the popular campus drink Four Loko.

The manufacturers have 15 days to inform the FDA of the steps they will take to fix the violation and prevent its recurrence or to present a defense of their product, according to the FDA release. If the companies fail to comply with the FDA’s requirements, the federal agency could seize the products or seek a court order to prevent the companies from continuing to manufacture the products.

While the FDA was announcing its decision, the Ohio Department of Commerce’s Division of Liquor Control made its own announcement regarding caffeinated alcoholic drinks.

The Division of Liquor Control said that Phusion Projects — the maker of Four Loko that was formed by three Ohio State alumni — and United Brands Company have agreed to stop marketing, promoting, manufacturing and selling their products in Ohio.

Although the division does not have the authority to change the law, the agreement with these companies means that distribution of Four Loko and Joose will stop in Ohio, according to a Department of Commerce press release.

Although only two companies are mentioned in the press release, the department is targeting all caffeinated alcoholic beverages, said Cara Keithley, the chief of communications for the Ohio Department of Commerce.

“My understanding is we’re asking for a ban of all AEDs — alcoholic energy drinks,” Keithley said.

Phusion Projects announced Tuesday that because of pressure from both the federal and state governments, it plans to reformulate its products to remove the caffeine, taurine and guarana from Four Loko in an effort to appease lawmakers, according to the company’s website. “We have repeatedly contended and still believe, as do many people throughout the country, that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe,” the company’s statement read. “We are taking this step after trying, unsuccessfully, to navigate a difficult and politically-charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels.”

The FDA said it sees Phusion Projects’ efforts as a step in the right direction and will work with the company to ensure the safety of its products.

But Keithley said it will take more than Phusion Projects’ announcement to keep Four Loko on Ohio’s shelves.

The Department of Commerce would have to review the final reformulated product before allowing vendors to resume sales, she said.

“I would think it would have to go through an approval process,” Keithley said.

Despite the popularity of the drinks, campus area vendors disagree on how the ban will affect sales.

Renzo Ganvini, an employee at Campus Corner, said Four Loko is a top-seller for the store, in part because of the publicity it received after nine college students in Washington were hospitalized in connection with the drink.

He said Campus Corner cuts back on ordering dairy products as OSU football games against Michigan approach to make room for Four Loko. He said customers will be upset if they can’t purchase the drinks for the game this year.

Brett Aukerman, manager at PJ’s Grill on Frambes Avenue, said the store has enough Four Loko in stock to get through the Michigan game.

A clerk at one campus store said there are 17,000 cases of Four Loko left in Columbus and that store owners have been instructed not to submit any more orders for the drink after Wednesday.

If the state approves a non-caffeinated version of Four Loko, Aukerman predicts it would still be popular among students.

Fisher isn’t convinced.

“I can only imagine how they will taste without caffeine,” Fisher said.

Once his shopping-cart-sized stock is gone, however, he might have no other option.

Sarah Pfledderer and Joe Podelco contributed to this story.  

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