Come to think of it, people were buying a lot of Four Loko.
"Yeah," said Lauren Flanagan, who reflected on her day working at Detroit Liquors in St. Petersburg on Wednesday. One man scooped up several of the $3 clunky, candy-colored cans, mentioning something about a ban.
"I'm going to drink up now," he told Flanagan.
It's scramble time for folks who want to "Loko." Effective immediately, the makers of Four Loko will stop adding the energizers caffeine, guarana and taurine to the fruity malt drink.
The announcement came the night before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter Wednesday to the makers of Four Loko and similar drinks including Joose, Moonshot and Core High Gravity. The FDA called the combination of alcohol and caffeine unsafe and gave the companies 15 days to decide how to fix it.
It followed weeks of scrutiny, bans, spoof videos and genuine fear. The drinks were dubbed "blackout in a can," linked with deaths, youth indoctrination and generally nutty behavior. Caffeine masks the effects of alcohol, scientists said, and makes you drunker.
Phusion Projects, the maker of Four Loko founded by three college friends from Ohio State University, wasn't thrilled. From a statement:
"We have repeatedly contended — and still believe, as do many people throughout the country — that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe. If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees that have been consumed safely and responsibly for years would face the same scrutiny that our products have recently faced."
Four Loko comes in 23.5 ounce tall boy cans and eight sweet flavors, like watermelon, lemonade and a purple concoction that tastes like bitter grape soda. It has the caffeine of at least a cup of coffee, and 12 percent alcohol by volume.
Likening it to cocktails galls Bruce Goldberger, a professor and director of toxicology at the University of Florida. Goldberger co-wrote a study that found a caffeine and alcohol mix causes people to get drunker, stay at bars longer and be more likely to drive.
"It's just ridiculous to compare an Irish coffee or a Red Bull and vodka with a Four Loko," Goldberger said. "There's simply no comparison. An individual can consume one can of Four Loko and reach an alcohol concentration that's consistent with intoxication, whereas if they were drinking a beer or hard liquor, they would have to consume four or five to reach the same level."
Horror stories abounded in just the past three months.
There was Demetrius Jordan, 20, who police say drank Four Loko and gin before causing a St. Petersburg crash that killed Elroy McConnell and his three sons, on vacation from Orlando.
There was Justin Barker, 21, who burst naked into a woman's New Port Richey home, ransacked it and passed out on the couch. The last thing he remembered doing, according to police, was drinking Four Loko.
There were the nearly two dozen students poisoned at New Jersey's Ramapo College, and the nine Central Washington University freshman who went to the hospital after drinking Four Loko and other heavy liquors.
Four Loko added big label warnings to cans and reduced the alcohol volume in certain states. The company worked with stores to display the drinks properly.
But the backlash was rolling.
The drink was banned in Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, Utah and Washington. Dozens of colleges either banned it or told students to avoid it.
People filmed themselves drinking it. One guy swilled three cans and tried to recite Shakespeare. Stephen Colbert sampled it on The Colbert Report, calling it "Your Uncle Jerry's Thanksgiving in a can."
New York assemblyman Felix Ortiz attempted to drink three Four Lokos in an hour for his local NBC affiliate, supervised by a doctor.
"As I am drinking this, I feel a big pump in my chest," he told cameras. His pulse got to 86 beats per minute, his blood pressure 126 over 84. Then he vomited.
"After a slice of pizza and some water, the assemblyman was feeling much better," said WNBC reporter Katy Tur.
Wednesday, there were a few purple Four Lokos in a cooler at Detroit Liquors, plus a box in the back. It sells best during St. Petersburg's First Friday celebrations, and before concerts at Jannus Live.
"If I drink it, I split it up between like three people," said Flanagan, 22. "I'll have a sip and then it's like, 'You guys go.' "
As news of impending doom spread among Four Loko fans, a recipe cruised the Internet. Jolly Ranchers, malt liquor, this and that.
Homemade Four Loko.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.