The rise and fall of Four Loko

The alcoholic beverage with a caffeine kick briefly captured the hearts — and livers — of America's youth. Then came the crackdown

Bowing to intense pressure from the Food and Drug Administration, colleges, and other institutions, the maker of the popular Four Loko beverage announced on Wednesday that it would remove caffeine and other stimulants from the drink. The malt-liquor based concoction, which can contain up to 12 percent alcohol and comes in eight fruity flavors, has been involved in a string of incidents in recent months in which people were hospitalized or died. Doctors say Four Loko's caffeine masks its alcoholic effects, leading drinkers to consume more than they normally would. (Watch a Russia Today report about Four Loko.) Although it's not the first drink to combine caffeine and alcohol, Four Loko was met with an unprecedented burst of popularity before quickly coming under scrutiny — a dizzying rise and devastating crash that echoed the beverage's effects. Here's a brief history:

2005: Chris Hunter, Jason Freeman, and Jeff Wright, three Ohio State students, come up with the idea for the beverage after “noticing that students were mixing alcohol and caffeine in bars. The "four" in the name refers to its four primary ingredients: alcohol, caffeine, taurine, and guarana. The trio forms manufacturer Phusion LLC, and begins selling 23-ounce cans of Four Loko at stores around the college.

2006: The drink gains momentum around colleges in the midwest, while raising questions about health risks.” Its unoffical slogan, says Charles Schelle at The Ball State Daily News, is “horny, hyper, and happy.”

2007 to 2009: Four Loko slowly makes headway around the United States, eventually becoming available in 46 American states. It goes on sale in Europe in 2008.

November 2009: The FDA notifies Phusion Products and other small makers of alcohol/caffeine drinks that it will begin looking into the safety of their products. Larger producers had previously agreed to stop selling their versions of such beverages — for instance, Miller cut the caffeine from its popular Sparks energy drink in 2008

Summer 2010: Rap songs glorifying Four Loko proliferate. Examples: Killah Kid Kriz's “Loko Is My Liquor” and Ricosuave's “So Loko (4 Loko Anthem),” which includes the stanza “I know Jesus turned water into wine / But he woulda turned it to Four Loko at a party of mine.”

September 2010: After a Four Loko-infused bender sickens 17 students and six visitors, New Jersey's Ramapo College bans the drink.

October 2010: Nine students at Central Washington University are hospitalized after mixing excessive amounts of Four Loko with other alcohols.

November 2010: A laundry list of colleges, including Boston University and University of Maryland, follow Ramapo's lead and ban the sale of Four Loko on campus. Multiple Four Loko-related deaths are reported across the country. Parents of a Florida man who killed himself blame his death on Four Loko and file suit against Phusion; a fatal Maryland car crash is also pinned on the beverage. As opposition mounts, grocery chains like Wegmans pull Four Loko from shelves, and entire states — Washington, Michigan, Utah, and Oklahama — forbid its sale.

November 7: In an effort to limit lost revenue, Phusion Products sends letters to college presidents and student-life deans, explaining "how to use its products responsibly" and even offering "financial support for alcohol education efforts on campus.”

November 14: Phusion Products agrees to stop shipping Four Loko to New York State, responding to safety concerns voiced by Governor David Paterson.

November 17: The company announces it will voluntarily pull caffeine from Four Loko. The move makes further action from the FDA unlikely.

November 22: Kansas bans Four Loko under the aegis of the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

This article was originally published on Nov. 17, and then updated on Nov. 24.

Sources: The Columbus Dispatch, The Ball State Daily News, University Press Club, Village Voice, WebMD, Huffington Post, Tri City Herald, The Daily Beast, New York Daily News, Examiner.com, Wichita Eagle


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