The rise of energy drinks like Red Bull has influenced a widespread phenomenon around college campuses: caffeinated alcoholic drinks. The energy drink Four Loko is popular for its fruity flavors and caffeine content, but recently it’s made headlines for the amount of alcohol it contains.
For those who haven’t seen the myriad news reports, a Four Loko contains 12 percent alcohol by volume — that’s equivalent to approximately three 12 oz. bottles of Bud Light — packed into a 23.5-ounce can. The drink also contains 135 milligrams of caffeine, which is comparable to a large cup of coffee.
According to the Associated Press, the caffeinated drinks are under U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigation after students from Central Washington University were hospitalized for consuming Four Lokos. The students had fatally high blood-alcohol levels, and one female student almost died, the Oct. 25 article reported. The university has since banned the alcoholic energy drinks.
However, the new wave of caffeine-infused alcoholic drinks seems to be increasing in popularity with K-State students.
Since news broke about the dangers of the drink, Ali Kindlesparger, employee at The Library Discount Liquor store in Aggieville, said Four Loko and other caffeinated alcoholic drink sales have increased, especially toward the beginning of the summer.
“Some customers have seen (the drink) on the news and see it in the store and then want to buy it to try it,” she said. “So in a way, it has kind of increased because of all the ‘hype’ about it.”
It might be hard to believe people would continue to drink such alcoholic energy drinks after hearing of the alcohol-related incidents at Central Washington University, but some students blame the individuals’ alcohol abuse rather than Four Loko.
Paige Steele, junior in economics, said partygoers commonly drink Four Lokos because they are cheap, but added most people she knows only drink one to feel the effects, then usually switch to beer for the rest of the night.
Kindlesparger said the drink sells for under $2.50 a can and is like “drinking a bottle of wine, but adding caffeine in the mix.”
“A lot of college kids are on a budget, and buying a Four Loko is a cheap way to get the same effects,” Steele said.
Despite the drink’s popularity among students, concerns over its safety continue to grow.
Heather Reed, associate dean and director for student life, said there is definitely a concern for the health of students who are drinking Four Loko, as well as other high-energy drinks.
“The serious thing is that, because of the fruity, high-sugar content, people may not realize how much alcohol is in the drink,” Reed said. “The sugary flavor tends to mask the alcohol.”
Along with the caffeine and sugar mixture masking the feeling of being drunk, Julie Gibbs, health promotion service director for Lafene Health Center, said “people could go into dangerous levels of intoxication” and go “beyond their means of being drunk.”
Some college-aged individuals routinely drink beyond their means; however, students who drink caffeinated malt liquors like Four Loko might not be aware of their body’s sensitivity to caffeine, Gibbs said.
When mixed with alcohol, caffeine can affect the body’s natural defense mechanism, which is to sleep, and could confuse the body, she said.
The drink is loaded with four ingredients: guarana, taurine, caffeine and alcohol; Kindsleparger said that is where the “four” in Four Loko comes from.
Taurine decreases fatigue and caffeine increases alertness, which means that when mixed together, people will experience an intense surge of energy, said Tandalayo Kidd, assistant professor of human nutrition.
“The danger is that caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and too much of it can speed the heart rate,” Kidd said. “When you combine that with alcohol, which is a depressant, it enhances the effect rather than countering it.”
In addition to concerns over the safety of Four Loko, another red flag has been raised regarding the marketing of such alcoholic energy drinks.
Four Loko, with its vibrantly colored aluminum can, has a similar appearance to many non-alcoholic energy drinks, which Reed said could definitely add to brand confusion. She also said it is very important for students to know that these alcoholic energy drinks are not like any other energy drink.
“Students could pick up an alcoholic energy drink that looks like a normal energy drink and not be clear on just how potent it really is,” she said.
Reed added Four Loko is more likely to appear at off-campus parties and in Aggieville instead of on campus, which makes it hard for student services to monitor.
However, drinking caffeinated alcoholic beverages like Four Loko is prohibited in residence halls because the alcohol content is over the 3.2 percent limit, Reed said.
All the speculation about Four Loko and other caffeinated alcoholic drinks gained the attention of the FDA. On Nov. 13, 2009, the FDA released a statement on fda.gov, announcing an investigation of the manufacturers of the alcoholic energy drinks.
According to the news release, 30 manufacturers were contacted and asked for “evidence of their rationale, with supporting data and information, for concluding that the use of caffeine in their product is (generally recognized as safe) or prior sanctioned.”
The results of the investigation are still unknown. At least for now, Four Loko is here to stay.