In the wake of recent backlash against Four Loko and other caffeinated alcoholic drinks, Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, D-7, is demanding action from the Baltimore City Liquor Board.

She plans to introduce a resolution at a Dec. 6 City Council meeting that would require the Liquor Board to report regulatory efforts to seize the drinks from Baltimore stores.

Although the FDA has demanded the manufacturers to remove caffeine from their malt alcoholic beverages or risk product seizure, Conaway says that does not stop retailers from selling what remains in their inventory.

“It’s a dangerous concentration or level of alcohol in these drinks,” she said. “I understand that they have a fruity flavor and it is highly desirable to young people…It seems this combination puts people at a higher risk…for fatalities.”

On Nov. 30, just days after Conaway announced the resolution, the Baltimore City Health Department ordered city liquor stores to halt distribution of the beverages by Dec. 2 or face fines of $1,000 or more.

The alcoholic drinks made national headlines in recent months after they were linked to a string of dangerous incidents on and off college campuses. Several students were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning after consuming and sometimes mixing the sugary drinks with drugs and liquor.

Conaway says stores and manufacturers may still have stock on hand and she wants to ensure retailers are prohibited from ordering more. “I would like to see these drinks pulled from shelves immediately,” she said, “especially when they know it is having such a negative effect on young people.”

Other Maryland officials have called for a statewide ban of the beverages including Attorney General Doug Gansler and Comptroller Peter Franchot.

Franchot says two of Maryland’s trade organizations—the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association and the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association—have voluntarily advised members to halt distribution of the drinks.

As comptroller, Franchot is the state’s chief financial officer and head regulator of the state’s alcohol and tobacco industries.

“I commend the for acting so promptly and so responsibly on what is really a public health issue,” he told the AFRO in a written statement. “Additionally, I appreciate the support of local municipalities, such as Baltimore City, in following the state’s lead in taking the appropriate measures to ensure that caffeinated alcoholic beverages are removed from retailer shelves. This instance has proven that by working together, we are able to take important steps to protect the lives of Maryland consumers.”

A representative said Franchot has sent letters to three manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic drinks asking them to buy back unsold products from distributors and retailers.

The top four drink producers have seen nationwide censure for their products. Soon after the FDA’s principal deputy commissioner released statements calling caffeine an “unsafe food additive” when pre-mixed with alcohol, the Treasury Department and Federal Trade Commission told the companies it was illegal to ship the products.

As of Nov. 30, at least six states had completely banned the drinks: Michigan, Utah, Oklahoma, Washington, Massachusetts and Kansas. Others have classified the drinks as liquor, thereby limiting the locations where the beverages could be sold, according to the Center for Disease Control.

FDA officials gave the drink manufacturers 15 days to alter their drinks or contest the regulator’s safety declarations. At AFRO press time, the companies had two days left.

Prior to the deadline, Charge Beverages Corp, New Century Brewing Co. and Phusion Projects, the producer of Four Loko, reported an end to distribution or the removal of caffeine from their fruity drinks. Phusion Projects added that they would remove guarana, a plant whose seeds are rich in caffeine, and taurine, an amino acid that boosts athletic and mental performance. The fourth company, United Brands Co. had yet to comment, but the group’s website now advertises only non-alcoholic beverages.

Before the health department’s order, Conaway said, voluntary disposal of the beverages would show that Baltimore City retailers were responsible, but she added it was unlikely they would “jump to remove” the popular drinks. Up until the ban, officials could not force storeowners to pull the products.

According to several Baltimore-area liquor store workers, the banning measures are unnecessary. They say most stores are cleaned out of Four Loko and similar beverages.

“Ninety percent of liquor stores are out of it,” said one cashier at a midtown liquor outlet.

A cashier at another store said every day, at least 20 customers request Four Loko. When the owner called Phusion Projects to re-stock about two weeks ago, he said, they told him manufacturing had stopped.

“I think the whole media involvement made people want to try it even more,” said the first man. He said regular customers who normally indulged in wines or beers started purchasing the fruity-flavored Four Loko by the case following the swarm of high-profile hospitalizations and media attention.

“It’s like a parental advisory sticker on a CD,” a co-worker chimed in.

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO