Four Loko: PBJ or Goober Grape?

Manufacturers love to combine two independently successful products and pass the combination off to consumers as a new and original idea. After the surge in popularity of energy drinks and the advent of Red Bull-vodka cocktails, it came as no surprise that the alcoholic energy drink was born. Unfortunately, just like Smucker’s Goober Grape, the results were less than stellar.

Last November, the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) warned four manufacturers of alcoholic energy drinks that the caffeine added to their product was an “unsafe food additive.” Citing concerns that caffeine may mask the effects of alcohol, the FDA instructed manufacturers to cease adding caffeine to their product or face the possibility of “further action” under federal law. The FDA made no mention of the after-market mixture of caffeine and alcohol. The FDA’s warning was only the beginning of the bad news for alcoholic energy drink manufacturers.

Recently, a New Jersey man sued Phusion Projects, the manufacturer of the popular Four Loko beverage, in state court, claiming that the product caused heart damage. The plaintiff, 22-year-old Michael Mustica, alleges that he developed a heart arrhythmia after drinking two-and-a-half cans of Four Loko over the course of one evening. Each 23.5 ounce can of Four Loko contains 12 percent alcohol, the equivalent of four beers, and 135 milligrams of caffeine, the equivalent of two cups of coffee. Ironically, the plaintiff claims to have fallen asleep prior to waking with a racing heart and difficulty breathing. Along with his claim of negligence, he also alleges that Phusion Projects failed to warn him of the potential danger of combining caffeine and alcohol. The report was silent as to whether these events took place before or after the November FDA warning.

We may want to withhold judgment until more facts surface. First, the plaintiff claims that his heart condition is the result of one night of Four Loko consumption. However, further investigation could reveal that the plaintiff – like many other 20-somethings – has a significant history of caffeine and/or alcohol consumption. A history of this nature can cause heart arrhythmia even without the consumption of Four Loko. Second, while the FDA’s warning about alcoholic energy drinks did not come until November 2010, concerns over energy drink consumption have been expressed since as early as 2008. Four Loko may have lacked a warning, but certainly, the plaintiff was likely aware of the potential health concerns from drinking 70.5 ounces of an energy drink in the span of one evening.

Furthermore, while we here at Abnormal Use have no medical evidence to refute the FDA study, it would seem illogical to hold Phusion Projects liable under these circumstances. At its essence, Four Loko is nothing more than a manufactured version of a cocktail served in every bar in America. If the combination of caffeine and alcohol is as dangerous as the FDA believes, then why hasn’t it – or some other government agency or official – issued a similar report concerning the safety of after-market mixing? We can only surmise that the FDA, just like the rest of us, likes its peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but hates its Goober Grape.

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