Four Loko, Not Date Rape Drugs, Linked to Student Hospitalizations

ROSALYN, Wash. — Investigators have linked alcoholic energy drinks to the hospitalization of nine Central Washington University (CWU) students after a party in Roslyn, Wash., on Oct. 9. Specifically, investigators say the students got sick from drinking Four Loko. 

The investigation also concluded that no students were given drugs or alcohol without their knowledge and that no sexual assault occurred. Initially, there was speculation that the students — six women and three men — may have been targeted as part of an orchestrated sexual assault at the off-campus house party.

Student BAC Levels as High As .35

CWU President James L. Gaudino said the blood alcohol levels of the hospitalized students ranged from .123 to .35.  A blood alcohol concentration of .3 is considered lethal. Each student had consumed a caffeinated malt liquor, Four Loko. Some had used it with other alcohol.

The investigation revealed that students drank caffeinated malt liquor, rum, vodka, and/or beer at the party, 30 miles west of CWU. No students said they had been given alcohol or drugs without their knowledge. No sexual assault occurred, and women were not targeted. No drugs were found in the house. No connection was found between the color of plastic cups — used primarily to play a drinking game — and the students who became ill.

One 23.5-ounce can of Four Loko, which is 12-percent alcohol, is comparable to drinking five or six beers. Health experts say that caffeine suspends the effects of alcohol, allowing people to continue drinking long after they normally would have stopped consuming non-caffeinated alcohol. The cans of the drink, which were found at the Roslyn house where the party occurred, sell for about $2.50, are carbonated, and contain high doses of caffeine and sugar.

Beverage is ‘Binge-Drinker’s Dream’

Professor Ken Briggs, chair of CWU’s Department of Physical Education, School and Public Health, said Four Loko, also known as “blackout in a can” or “liquid cocaine,” is one of the most popular of the 25 or more alcoholic energy drinks on the market. According to Briggs, the caffeine makes alcoholic energy drinks (AEDs) “a binge-drinker‘s dream” because the caffeine and other stimulants allow a drinker to ingest larger volumes of alcohol without passing out.

“Being able to feel the effects of tiredness, loss of coordination and even passing out or vomiting are the body’s defenses against consuming doses of alcohol that will kill you,” said Briggs, adding that drinkers like to chug AEDs as quickly as possible and chase them with vodka or rum. “Regardless, once the blood alcohol level reaches a certain level you can drop like a box of rocks.”

AG, CWU Propose Ban of Caffeinated Alcoholic Drinks

In response to the incident, Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna is asking the FDA to ban the sale of beverages that contain alcohol and caffeine.

“It’s time to bring an end to the sale of alcoholic energy drinks,” says McKenna. “They’re marketed to kids by using fruit flavors that mask the taste of alcohol, and they have such high levels of stimulants that people have no idea how inebriated they really are. They’re packaged just like non-alcoholic drinks but include a dangerous dose of malt liquor.”

Additionally, CWU announced that AEDs would be banned at CWU pending a thorough review of drug and alcohol education programs and policies and a study of the dangers associated with the drinks.

Beverage Maker Responds to CWU Incident

In response to the uproar surrounding its product, the firm that makes Four Loko, Phusion Projects, issued the following statement:

No one is more upset than we are when our products are abused or consumed illegally by underage drinkers — and it appears that both happened in this instance. This is unacceptable.

But so too is placing blame for the incident squarely on Four Loko when the police report, toxicology reports and witness testimony all show that other substances, including beer, hard liquors like vodka and rum, and possibly illicit substances, were consumed as well. 

In fact, while our product is mentioned only twice in the 44-page police report, hard liquor, vodka, rum or other alcohol is mentioned at least 19 times; beer is mentioned at least 3 times; and illegal drugs or roofies are mentioned at least 14 times — including twice in connection with an individual attending the party with the intention of bringing drugs with him and once in connection with smoking marijuana.

Officers on the scene reported disposing of the alcohol they found in the house, yet none of these officers described doing this by singling out one product or type of product.

In addition, the ages of the students involved have been redacted from the report, meaning there is no way to determine if any of the partygoers were of-age. Read more here.

Again, the events in central Washington this month were inexcusable. And most would expect our company to disagree with recent decisions to ban our products from college campuses or otherwise restrict their use there.

We do not.  We agree with the goals that underlie those sentiments. Making college campuses safe and healthy environments for learning is a goal we share with administrators – even those who have chosen to ban our products. However, we also know that curbing alcohol abuse on college campuses will not be accomplished by singling out a lone product or beverage category.

This is precisely why we go to great lengths to ensure our products are not sold to underage consumers and are not abused. As a company, we do all we can to ensure that our products are consumed safely and responsibly.  Read more here.

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