RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Alcoholic energy drinks are facing growing public scrutiny. Michigan is banning the beverages, and in Washington state, nine college freshmen recently landed in the hospital with near-lethal blood-alcohol levels. They were drinking a caffeinated malt beverage called Four Loko.
The companies that make these drinks say they're being unfairly targeted.
From the Northwest News Network, Anna King reports.
ANNA KING: Police reports describe chaos at the October incident. It happened near Central Washington University about two hours east of Seattle: female freshmen, unable to talk or sit-up, lying on mattresses in a basement. Police shuttled loads of intoxicated freshmen back to campus. They took the worst cases to the hospital. Police say one student almost died. Investigators thought at first they'd been drugged. Turns out they were drinking a caffeinated alcoholic beverage called Four Loko. Now Washington's Attorney General Rob McKenna wants state lawmakers to ban these types of drinks.
Mr. ROB MCKENNA (Attorney General, Washington State): The wide availability of alcoholic energy drinks means that a single mistake can be deadly. You're a 135-pound woman, you drink two of these Four Lokos, and you can reach the level of toxicity for alcohol poisoning.
KING: Eighteen attorneys general have pressured the Food and Drug Administration to look into what's in these drinks and determine whether they're safe. Washington's attorney general criticizes Four Lokos brightly-colored cans that look like regular energy drinks, with flavors like lemonade, blue raspberry, and fruit punch.
Mr. JEFF WRIGHT (Co-owner, Four Loko): It's kind of unfair, in this example, that our product is being singled out.
King: That's company co-owner Jeff Wright. He says Four Loko isn't to blame for the Central Washington students being sent to the hospital.
Mr. WRIGHT: I mean, according to the police report, there was hard alcohol at this function. There were multiple different types of alcohol there.
KING: It's awfully hard for consumers to figure out just what's in a can and how much is safe to drink. There are no serving recommendations, no calories, and no caffeine content on the label. And the company that makes Four Loko will only give an estimate of how much caffeine is its drink. One can has about as much as a six-pack of Diet Coke. And how much alcohol?
(Soundbite of can snapping open)
KING: For that, a kitchen funnel comes in handy.
(Soundbite of pouring drinks)
KING: One can of Four Loko fills an empty wine bottle and in fact, contains about as much alcohol as a bottle of wine.
(Soundbite of ball rolling)
KING: In the student commons of Washington State University in Richland, most students say they don't drink Four Loko. But 23-year-old Jarod Franklin says he's used these drinks to the point of blacking out. He and his friends liked them because of the buzz, the feeling of energized euphoria.
Mr. JAROD FRANKLIN: We would start to lose those inhibitions and then, oh, how'd you get a broken knuckle? Oh, I punched through a three-inch layer of ice. You bet me I couldn't.
KING: Franklin says he no longer uses these drinks because he didn't like how he felt afterward and he didn't like spending the money. Here in Washington and across the country, schools are trying to educate students about the dangers of being wide-awake and drunk. Many, like Central Washington University, have banned the drinks.
For NPR News, I'm Anna King in Richland, Washington.
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