Alcoholic energy drinks
Four Loko

ELLENSBURG—Ken Briggs, chairman of Central Washington University's physical education department and school of public health, said he hopes what happened in Roslyn on Oct. 8 will be a learning experience.

"Like everybody else at the university, I am saddened that so many of our students had to walk through such a terrible event," Briggs said earlier this week. "My greatest hope (is) that this might become a defining event that, quite frankly, can help us save lives."

Briggs said Four Loko, the alcoholic energy drink blamed for sickening nine CWU students, is the most popular of 25 different brands of alcoholic energy drinks. He said Four Loko has 12 percent alcohol by volume, as opposed to 4.5 percent in a typical beer. The 23.5-ounce cans of fruity malt liquor sell for about $2.50 and have as much alcohol as five to six beers, authorities said.

During a press conference at CWU, Briggs showed cans of alcoholic energy drinks, energy drinks and beer that he bought in Ellensburg over the weekend.

"This can of Red Bull has about 80 milligrams of caffeine. A cup of coffee has 100 milligrams of caffeine," Briggs said. "This can of Monster has about 160 milligrams of caffeine."

The caffeine content of Four Loko is not disclosed on the can, he said.

"Many estimates are that it is over 500 milligrams per can," Briggs said. "So essentially what you have is, you have about a six pack of beer, wine, mixed drinks, whatever, and five cups of coffee in one of these cans."

The Four Loko website doesn't say specifically how much caffeine is in the drink, but states the product contains less caffeine than a 12-ounce drip coffee. "In fact, Four Loko and Four MaXed contain less alcohol and less caffeine per volume than many prepackaged caffeinated distilled spirits approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau," the site says.

Easily chugged

Four Loko is absorbed more quickly than Red Bull because is it more carbonated, Briggs said.

"Plus they're super sweet and they're easily chugged," Briggs said.

The effects of Four Loko are "a wide awake drunk who may not feel the warning signs of dangerous drinking," he said.

People who consume the beverage might not notice tiredness and loss of coordination. "With (caffeinated alcoholic beverages) like Four Loko, when you reach a certain point you can actually drop like a box of rocks because what is happening, is the caffeine and ... all these other substances are messing up with the gradual and normal brain function depression that are signals that it's time to shut it down," Briggs said.

The nine college freshmen, ranging in age from 17 to 19, who were hospitalized after the party on Oct. 8 had blood-alcohol levels of .123 to .35, police said. A blood-alcohol level of .3 can be lethal. One student nearly died, police said.

All of the students who were hospitalized consumed Four Loko. Some students said they also consumed vodka, rum and beer.

Briggs said .35 percent alcohol by volume is equivalent to general anesthesia and .4 percent is a coma.

He said so many CWU students got sick on Oct. 8 because it was a "perfect storm" of biochemical factors and freshmen who were inexperienced with alcohol "with an expectation to get wasted."

Ban on drinks sought

Four Loko is made by Chicago-based Phusion Projects. The company's co-founder, Jaisen Freeman, declined comment Monday. A statement released by the company said it was unacceptable to blame the incident on Four Loko when students were consuming other alcoholic beverages as well.

Seeking a ban

Central Washington University President James Gaudino has banned alcoholic energy drinks on campus, and Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna is seeking a statewide ban.

The FDA sent a warning letter to Phusion Products in November 2009 asking the company for information that shows adding caffeine to alcoholic beverages is safe, and the case remains open, the agency said in a statement Monday.

Four Loko's website says the company clearly displays the alcohol content on each can and warning labels.

"While Four products may be on the high end for domestic beers, they are comparable to many craft and import beers. Four contains far less alcohol than distilled spirits, like vodka and rum, which are frequently combined with caffeine," the website says.

The website also touts its labeling.

"The alcoholic content on the label is as large as allowed by federal government regulations. We also go above and beyond federal and state labeling requirements by including a prominent "WE ID" phrase on all of our products," the website says.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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