A few years ago, the most controversial energy drink in the Black community was Pimp Juice, a product manufactured by rap artist Nelly. Regardless of the contents, the product’s name was too negative for its critics. Black leaders went on the attack and Pimp Juice quickly phased out after the hype.

Another questionable energy drink is now being distributed near college campuses across America and urban neighborhoods. A sugary alcoholic-energy drink, Four Loko may be lethal.

Keith Britton, 52, is a drug monitor and life coach for recovering addicts. He claimed promotion of Four Loko as a health/energy drink is misleading. “If it’s a health drink, why is it sold only in liquor stores? College students who want to stay up to study are being lured into something dangerous,” said Britton, a northwest resident with two daughters attending college.

Recently, nine college students from Central Washington University in Washington state were hospitalized after consuming drugs, liquor and sugary, high-alcoholic energy drinks at an off-campus party. Washington States Attorney Gen. Rob McKenna called for the drinks to be banned and sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) saying the beverage “presents a serious threat to public health and safety.”

Other states are considering similar measures. At least two universities have banned the drinks from campus while the FDA’s review is underway. “This could be the beginning of alcoholic-energy drinks being used as gateways to harder drugs. Take it from me. I’ve been there. I know,” said Britton.

The manufacturer, Phusion Projects, could not be reached for comment by deadline. However, the AFRO obtained several statements from its website regarding the incident and the safety of its products.

In 2005, three Ohio State University friends noticed the growing popularity of mixing caffeinated beverages with alcohol – like Red Bull and vodka – and decided to create a beverage company of their own. They took out a Small Business Administration loan, maxed out their credit cards and put all of their financial resources on the line to launch the Chicago-based company.

Over the past five years, Phusion Projects has become a successful, selling its products in 47 states. It created the brands Four Loko and Four MaXed, drinks that combine alcohol with caffeine, gaurana – a stimulant similar to coffee that is purported to deliver a fruity taste, quicken perception, delay sleep, impair appetite and improve endurance-based activities – and taurine – an amino acid that’s been found to regulate the level of water and mineral salts in the blood. The company also produces Earthquake, a non-caffeinated high-gravity (high sugar) lager.

The manufacturer maintains Four Loko contains less alcohol and less caffeine per volume than many prepackaged caffeinated distilled spirits approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, among them coffee liqueurs and caffeinated vodkas. The company also said Four Loko has less alcohol than rum and cola, vodka and energy drinks, whiskey and coffee.

In a press released dated Oct. 26, Phusion Projects officials stated, “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.”

Pointing out its product was mentioned least in the report, the company refused to take blame in the matter. “We also know that curbing alcohol abuse on college campuses will not be accomplished by singling out a lone product or beverage category. The only answer lies with increased education and awareness by all involved and with respecting the law,” the release continued.

Elliott Mathis, 28, an artist in northwest D.C., drank as many as three cans at one time. “I wanted the rush to stay up painting,” said Mathis. “It’s different than most energy drinks. I think 211 (a popular malt liquor known as liquid cocaine) is stronger. But Loko’s flavors taste better.”

Britton said because the product is marketed in the Black community as an energy drink with a kick, it can easily get into the hands of the wrong crowd, especially inquisitive teens. “The government must take a stance on this product. Don’t allow it to be advertised as a health drink and promote it for what it really is – liquor,” said Britton.

Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO