FDA To Rule Caffeine Unsafe In Alcohol

Harry Schuhmacher, of Beer Business Daily, just issued a news alert that he’s learned from the website of New York Senator Charles Schumer that the FDA “will rule ‘that caffeine is an unsafe food additive to alcoholic beverages, effectively making products such as Four Loko, Joose, and others like them, prohibited for sale in the United States.'”

According to the press release from Senator Schumer:


After Months of Pressure by Schumer, FDA to Send Notice to Manufacturers of Caffeinated Alcoholic Beverages that Product is Not Considered Safe; Move Will Effectively Ban Products from the Market

FTC to Send Notices to Manufacturers That They Are Engaged in the Marketing of Unsafe Alcoholic Drinks

Schumer: Let This Serve as a Warning to Anyone Who Tries to Peddle Dangerous Beverages to Our Kids, Do it, And We Will Shut You Down

U.S Senator Charles E. Schumer announced today that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will rule that caffeine is an unsafe food additive to alcoholic beverages, effectively making products such as Four Loko, Joose, and others like them, prohibited for sale in the United States. Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) plans to notify manufacturers that they are engaged in the potential illegal marketing of unsafe alcoholic drinks. These announcements come after months of intense pressure by Senator Schumer to have the drinks banned because of serious risks to consumer health and safety.

“Let these rulings serve as a warning to anyone who tried to peddle dangerous and toxic brews to our children. Do it and we will shut you down,” said Schumer. “This ruling should be the nail in the coffin of these dangerous and toxic drinks. Parents should be able to rest a little easier knowing that soon their children won’t have access to this deadly brew.”

After calls by Schumer to ban the drinks in New York, just this past week, the State Liquor Authority and the state’s largest beer distributors agreed to stop selling these dangerous drinks in New York. In addition to New York’s efforts, Oklahoma, Utah, Michigan, and Washington acted to ban the drinks as did a number of colleges, including Ramapo College, Worcester State University, the University of Rhode Island and the Wentworth Institute of Technology.

Popular drinks such as Four Loko and Joose contain as much as 2-3 coffee cups worth of caffeine and 2-3 cans of beer per container — a potent, dangerous mix that can be extremely hazardous for teens and adults alike. Last month, nine students passed out and were hospitalized after drinking Four Loko, leading states and universities across the country to issue ban, limit, or issue warnings about the drink.

Compounded with its health risks, beverages like Four Loko pose a unique danger because they target young people. The style of the beverages – with a vibrantly colored aluminum can colors and funky designs — appeal to younger consumers, increasing the likelihood that the beverages will be consumed by young adults and creating a problem for parents and business owners who might be misled by the branding. Four Loko is also stocked next to other energy drinks, creating further confusion.

Last week, Schumer was joined in his efforts to ban the drink by Jacqueline Celestino, grandmother of Nicole Lynn Celestino, an 18 year old from Long Island who passed away after drinking the caffeinated alcoholic beverage Four Loko. Nicole, went into cardiac arrest after drinking Four Loko this past August, she had taken a diet pill that day. Nicole’s family has become outspoken advocates for a ban on alcoholic caffeinated drinks like Four Loko.

The dangers of these drinks are well known. A recent study found that young and underage drinkers who combine alcohol with caffeine, which occurs with increasing frequency given the prevalence of beverages like Four Loko and Joose, are more likely to suffer injury, be the victim of sexual assault, drive while intoxicated, and require medical attention than drinkers who consume caffeine-free beverages. In 2008, Anheuser-Busch InBev NV and MillerCoors LLC reformulated caffeinated alcoholic beverages under pressure from several states and regulatory bodies, but smaller companies like the manufacturers of Four Loko and Joose managed to remain unnoticed.

According to the statement, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) plans to notify manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages “that they are engaged in the potential illegal marketing of unsafe alcoholic drinks.”

There’s a lot of nonsense in that press release, and no one knows how whatever ruling the FDA makes will effect beer with coffee, tea or caffeine added for flavor.

First there’s this rant: “‘Let these rulings serve as a warning to anyone who tried to peddle dangerous and toxic brews to our children. Do it and we will shut you down,’ said Schumer. ‘This ruling should be the nail in the coffin of these dangerous and toxic drinks. Parents should be able to rest a little easier knowing that soon their children won’t have access to this deadly brew.’”

Did I miss a meeting. People under 21 can’t buy these products now. My kids, your kids, everybody’s kids have no access to these so-called “deadly brews.” If they do find a way to get them (which I have no doubt of) then that’s a failure of another kind. And doing away with them altogether effectively takes them away from law-abiding adults who want to purchase them. That just makes no sense to me. It’s as if they’re saying we can’t control the portion of the population that are under 21 so we’re going to punish everybody because we can’t do our job.

But that aside, there’s absolutely nothing preventing anybody from simply mixing a caffeinated drink with alcohol and making their own drink. That’s the whole reason companies started making pre-packaged RTD’s with alcohol and caffeine in the first place, because people were already doing that on their own. They didn’t create the demand, they responded to it and simply gave the people what they wanted.

This will do virtually nothing to stop people from drinking caffeine and alcohol together. It may make it more difficult and less convenient, but the cat is out of the bag. If anything, going back to people making these drinks themselves will make them less safe, not more, because there will be no standardized ratio for mixing the two.

Toward the end, Schumer claims “[t]he dangers of these drinks are well known.” Really, people have been drinking caffeine and alcohol together as long as the two have existed. Has it become more popular lately? Maybe, but people were doing it pretty regularly as long ago as when I was a young adult, thirty years ago. I’d love to see that study he cites, I’m willing to bet there are holes in it you could drive a truck through.

But the real danger is that undoubtedly craft beers that have beers with caffeine added for flavor, whether coffee or tea, will get dragged under in the government’s zeal to look like they’re doing something to protect people from themselves. Say goodbye to coffee stouts, a drink no underage kid would drink with a ten-foot straw.


  1. says

    My guess? The ruling will make no mention of nor allowance whatsoever for craft beer with dilute amounts of, e.g., coffee in it, and these beers will thus fall under a sweeping FDA ban.

    Meanwhile, you can imagine bartenders will no longer be permitted to make someone an Irish coffee or a Red Bull and vodka, but there will be nothing illegal about bringing those ingredients to the customer’s table separately, therefore accomplishing, effectively, nothing except to create a laughable hassle of a situation for consumers and businesses alike.

  2. Chaz says

    How common are these with the “kids” anyway? In my day people would buy bottles of cheap whiskey or vodka and a mixer, seems like it’d be much cheaper than everyone buying several cans at $3/pop.

  3. says

    This type of thing is exactly what I was afraid of when the “BAN FOUR LOCO!” meme started sweeping the internet. I don’t understand the notion that a product that is illegal for sale to kids is “targeted at kids”. If that’s the case, why aren’t they combating the problem that kids are getting the drinks?

    Nevermind the huge uptick in interest for caffeine + alcohol from all the press this gets. What a waste.

    I imagine beers with coffee beans added won’t have an issue, but there are other beers (like Moonshot) that advertise having caffeine too. Must be horrible news for them.

  4. Jason says

    This is just another example of someone else wanting to tell you what to eat or drink. Alcohol and caffeine are legal products. Both have been consumed together for generations. Now some companies capitalize on that combination with cheesy packaging and marketing and we have to be saved from this ‘dangerous combination’. I call BS and I’m sure that no bar will be stopped from serving rum & cokes, red bull & anything, irish coffee, etc.

  5. California Pete says

    Jay, I almost always fully sympathize with your vigilance toward neo-Prohibitionism, and I agree here that the whole save-the-children hyperbole is misplaced, given that we already have perfectly good laws on the books that are supposed to address that issue. But I’m also not going to lose any sleep, or get particularly outraged, by a 4Loko ban.

    The BA’s response today was spot on. Publicly condemn the likes of 4Loko and other similarly cynical, irresponsible products, but also advocate for clear rules that don’t overreach. We need to choose our battles well, and fighting for the right to produce 4Loko runs the very real risk of making us look like the out-of-touch-with-reality extremists that the Marin Institute accuses us of being. Please, please, let’s not gift them that easily political win.

    And let’s also not kid ourselves: 4Loko is not the equivalent of an Irish coffee or a rum and coke, and you do a real disservice by suggesting it is in any way comparable to a traditional form of alcohol (or caffeine) consumption. It’s a cynical product that combines insane amounts of both caffeine and sugar to conceal a highly potent quantity of alcohol–cynical enough to truly become dangerous to even the mildly irresponsible. (And there was a night or two when I was growing up where my own mild irresponsibility combined with 4Loko could have ended a lot worse than it otherwise did with my arsenal of beer bongs and shots of gin.)

    Now, I don’t for a second believe that any ban of 4Loko will really make things significantly safer, because there will still be the Red-Bull-and-vodka option. But as defenders of craft beer and responsible drinking, it is political suicide to fight for the likes of 4Loko. Just as the BA has done, we need to distance ourselves as far as possible from that irresponsible side of the alcohol scene so that we can then advocate for our very real concerns–such as preserving our right to brew coffee stouts and such–from a much more defendable political position.

    • Jay Brooks says

      Yeah, I understand. I’m no fan of the 4Loco stuff, either. I don’t drink it or the other similar stuff. I also believe the worst part of this is the threat to traditional beers with caffeine, and thought I said as much.

      I also don’t think I ever equated 4 Loco with Irish Coffee or the other traditional drinks you mentioned. If I gave that impression, it was unintentional. But even so, I still don’t like the notion that the government’s response is to ban them precisely because underage kids are illegally drinking it. Today that may be these drinks, but tomorrow it could be something we do care about. That’s the slippery slope that worries me. That’s why these things drive me crazy. It’s not so much that I care if 4 Loco and others disappear, it’s how and why. And that’s why I also disagree with distancing ourselves from them. I see no contradiction in hating the product but championing its right to exist. If adults want to buy them, that should be their right. If kids want to buy them, they can’t. If they do, as I said, that’s a different problem, one that shouldn’t be solved by denying the adults who want to buy them from being allowed to do so.

  6. Jason Harris says

    News is out today that FourLoko is just going to remove the caffeine, keep selling the drink and ride the wave of a huge mass of free publicity.

    Meanwhile, other companies have to deal with the fallout of any potential caffeine bans. This is why yelling for products to be banned is a stupid, stupid idea.


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