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Fatal St. Petersburg wreck brings more scrutiny to alcohol-energy drinks like Four Loko

Four Loko, the caffeine-fueled malt liquor that police say Demetrius Jordan downed before he was accused of driving drunk and killing four people, is part of a new breed of beverages stirring controversy across the country.

Almost two dozen states have investigated these drinks, the Food and Drug Administration is studying whether they should be banned and a University of Florida researcher says they are designed for one purpose only — to get people drunker.

"I don't think there's a place for these beverages in the marketplace," said Bruce Goldberger, a professor and director of toxicology at UF.

Goldberger is a senior author of a study earlier this year that found people who mix caffeine and alcohol — vodka and Red Bull is a popular combination — get drunker than people who drink alcohol alone. They tend to stay longer at bars and consume more beverages, the study says.

Even more startling, the study found that people who consume caffeinated drinks are four times as likely to drive than those who drink alcohol without caffeine.

The caffeine-enriched beers have nearly three times the alcohol content as traditional beer and usually come in containers with twice the volume, Goldberger said. They usually cost $2 to $3 for a 16- to 24-ounce can.

Police say Jordan told officers he drank Four Lokos mixed with liquor and smoked marijuana before getting behind the wheel. Police aren't sure how much he drank, but a crushed, empty 16-ounce can of Four Loko was found in the back seat of his car. His blood alcohol level won't be known for weeks.

Jordan is accused of speeding through a red light at 22nd Avenue N and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street early Sunday morning and causing the crash that killed Elroy McConnell, 51, and his three sons Elroy III, 28, Nathan, 24, and Kelly, 19. Jordan's 20-year-old cousin and passenger Mario Robinson was also injured.

Jordan, 20, was charged with four counts of DUI manslaughter, driving under the influence resulting in a serious bodily injury and a misdemeanor count of possession of alcohol by a person under the age of 21.

Chad Bruns, 31, of St. Petersburg used to drink Four Loko, but not anymore.

"It gets you where you need to be a little too fast," Bruns said. "The taste and just overall feeling isn't the greatest either. It's more for something to drink if you want to get drunk and you don't have much money."

Bruns said Four Loko tastes like cheap fortified wine mixed with Red Bull, an energy drink. It gave him a bigger buzz than most alcoholic beverages, he said.

The drinks — with names like Liquid Charge, Joose and Max — became popular after the explosion of nonalcoholic energy drinks.

In studying whether the drinks should be banned, the FDA sent letters to 27 manufacturers and distributors of alcohol seeking the rationale for adding caffeine to alcohol. No decision has been reached.

Controversy is nothing new to Phusion Projects, the Chicago company behind Four Loko.

Last year, as part of a multi-state investigation involving other attorneys general, the Illinois attorney general investigated the company's marketing to determine if it was promoting to kids. The drinks are particularly popular among men and women in their 20s, but the concern among authorities is that the drinks are targeting underage drinkers.

"This tragedy speaks to the serious, societal concerns regarding the misuse of alcohol in our society — alcohol abuse, drunk driving and underage drinking are problems we would all like to see discussed and solved," said Phusion Projects managing partner Chris Hunter in a statement. Four Loko is available at 300 locations in the Tampa Bay area.

Larger companies have seen their own problems with the beverages.

Sparks, a similar drink which had half the alcohol of Four Loko, was one of the first alcoholic energy drinks, hitting the market in 2002. In 2008, Miller Brewing removed the caffeine in Sparks after it was sued by a watchdog group. Anheuser-Busch also stopped adding caffeine to its products in 2008.

Andy Boyle can be reached at aboyle@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8087.

Fatal St. Petersburg wreck brings more scrutiny to alcohol-energy drinks like Four Loko 08/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 5, 2010 12:27am]

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