Lawmakers eye caffeine/alcohol bill

BY SAM LANE | FEBRUARY 28, 2011 7:20 AM

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When Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, learned that a caffeinated alcoholic beverage sent one of his constituents — a University of Iowa student — to the emergency room, he decided to take action.

After hearing the story from the young woman’s mother, Schoenjahn sponsored a bill that seeks to modify the definition of “high-alcohol content beer” — containing 5 to 12 percent alcohol by volume — to prohibit the addition of caffeine or other added stimulants, including guarana, ginseng, and taurine.

The Committee on Commerce passed the bill Feb. 16, and Schoenjahn said the Senate will likely vote on the measure within the next couple of weeks.

“Everyone realized what it was,” said Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, of the bill. “They realized what the intent was. It was aimed at a specific dangerous product on the market.”

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The proposed legislation has transformed to now be a part of a larger bill, SenateFile 242, for issues typically addressed by the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division.

The law wouldn’t ban Iowans from mixing caffeine and alcohol, as is customary with popular drinks such as rum and Coke. Rather, the bill targets packaged beverages.

“I’m not going to bother people who need their Bailey’s [Irish cream] and coffee,” Schoenjahn quipped.

The product that sparked the bill, Four Loko, contains up to 12 percent alcohol in addition to caffeine. And since the first of what’s been called “blackout in a can” hit the shelves in 2008 — becoming popular among college students — the drink has undergone significant changes.

The Food and Drug Administration sent letters to Phusion Projects, which produces Four Loko, and three similar companies in November 2010 notifying them they needed to remove the added caffeine in their alcoholic products for safety reasons.

FDA spokesman Doug Karas said all companies followed the request. After the changes, representatives from some local stores said they saw a significant decrease in sales.

Nick Eckerman, a manager at the Liquor House, 425 S. Gilbert St., said the store hasn’t sold nearly as many Four Lokos with the caffeine removed.

“I just think they’re cheap and, for college students, that’s what they wanted,” he said. Four Lokos sold at some stores for as low as $2.99 per can.

However, some UI students said they didn’t mind seeing the new version of Four Loko.

“If you really love the buzz that much, you can do the same thing with coffee and beer … I didn’t really see the big flash of it,” UI junior Joey Ackerman, who had a can of Four Loko when it included caffeine.

Senate File 242 wouldn’t change the FDA regulations in place — rather, it will prevent similar products from entering the market in Iowa, said Tonya Dusold, a communications representative at the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division.

Four Loko’s company officials complied with the regulations but said publicly they didn’t believe the caffeine/alcohol combination was dangerous.

But experts disagree.

Michael Takacs, an emergency-room doctor at the UI Hospital and Clinics who specializes in alcohol-related emergencies, said he simply doesn’t buy the arguments presented by Phusion’s co-founders.

Caffeine is a stimulant, Takacs said, which masks the effects of the alcohol, giving drinkers the perception they’re more alert. When the caffeine from drinks such as Four Loko leaves the system, a person is left only with dangerous levels of alcohol.

And according to a 2010 University of Florida survey, bar patrons who consumed alcohol mixed with energy drinks were three times as likely to leave the bar with a breath alcohol concentration above 0.08 percent. They were also four times as likely to intend to drive.

If the bill passes, Iowa will join Washington, Utah, Oklahoma, New York, and Vermont, among others, as states with supplementary bans on caffeinated alcoholic beverages, Dusold said.

“We’re neutral on [the bill],” she said. “We don’t make the laws. We just enforce them. We support the Legislature 100 percent.”

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