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Drink’s allure sways students despite dangers

  • A tall can of Four Loko has the alcohol content of four beers.

Grace was at a friend’s house the first time she tried Four Loko, the now-notorious caffeinated alcohol drink described by some as "blackout in a can."

The 19-year-old University of Hawaii student, who asked that her full name not be used because she is an underage drinker, said she’d heard of the drink via Facebook friends on the mainland and was curious to see whether it was as sweet-tasting and as potent as promised.

"It tasted like candy, kind of like a Jolly Rancher," Grace said. "It was good because I couldn’t taste the alcohol."

Sitting outside the university’s Johnson Hall dorms, playing with a flexible bracelet she got for stopping by an alcohol awareness event at Campus Center earlier that day, Grace said the drink is popular among her fellow UH students, in part because of all of the attention it has garnered in recent months.

"It’s all over the place," she said. "And if you can’t taste the alcohol, everyone is going to go for it."

The latest wrinkle in the liquor industry’s decades-old push to make strong alcoholic beverages more palatable to younger drinkers, caffeinated alcoholic drinks like Four Loko and Joose combine high alcohol content (a tall can of Four Loko has the alcohol equivalent of four beers) with caffeine, guarana, sugar and other ingredients commonly found in energy drinks. The drinks are packaged in colorful, ornate cans similar to those used for nonalcoholic energy drinks.

Washington state recently joined Utah, Michigan and Oklahoma in banning alcoholic energy drinks following the hospitalization of nine Central Washington students who were sickened after consuming large amounts of Four Loko.

In Hawaii, two of the four sexual assault cases reported on the UH-Manoa campus in the last four months may have involved consumption of Four Loko, although university officials caution that no definitive links have yet been proven.

Incidents involving Four Loko have been well documented, including a traffic fatality case in Maryland earlier this month involving a 21-year-old woman who apparently lost control of the truck she was driving and crashed into a telephone pole after consuming two Four Loko drinks.

On Wednesday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent Four Loko manufacturer Phusion Projects a warning letter declaring the caffeine included in the drink an "unsafe additive" and directing the company to "correct the violation." Phusion Projects subsequently announced that it would cease adding caffeine to the drink.

While mainland media have reported a run on Four Loko at markets and liquor stores in supposed anticipation of the caffeinated drink no longer being available, UH student Grace said she doesn’t think people in Hawaii will go out of their way to stockpile the drink.

Indeed, just a couple of miles from the UH-Manoa campus, the convenience store Manoa Mart still had an ample stock of four different flavors of Four Loko in its refrigerated section.

Clerk Sun Kim said the store has been carrying the drink for about a month "as an experiment" and that sales have been steady but unspectacular.

"They like it because it’s strong," she said.

Like "Jaeger Bombs" and other popular mixed drinks that combine energy drinks with hard liquor, commercial beverages that pair caffeine and alcohol are seen as potentially dangerous because the caffeine might keep people artificially awake, enabling them to drink more alcohol than their normally capability. The high alcohol content also means that those who consume the beverage would be ingesting their alcohol much more rapidly than normal.

UH student Morgan Nickel, 21, has tried Four Loko several times and said he understands the attraction even if he doesn’t care for it.

"They do a good job of marketing to a young audience," Nickel said. "It’s cheap, it tastes like sugar and it looks like an energy drink. It’s like Rockstar meets alcohol."

Ben Akiu, 40, of Liliha achieved YouTube notoriety for downing two Four Loko drinks in less than a minute on a viral video. He said the drink tastes "nasty" but packs a punch.

At 360-plus pounds, Akiu, identified in his videos as the "Insane Hawaiian," has a fairly high tolerance for alcohol, yet even he said he wouldn’t drink more than a couple of Four Lokos.

"Drinking two of them the way I drink them, I got a very good buzz," he said.

Akiu said he’s noticed the drink disappearing from the shelves recently. He said he’ll probably pick up a few from The Keg Liquors before the caffeinated version goes away forever.

"I’ll buy some just to have in case it never comes back," he said.

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