Baltimore City, Howard County ban caffeine-infused alcohol drinks

Baltimore City and Howard County said Tuesday that they will fine merchants who refuse to stop selling caffeine-infused alcohol drinks — a move designed to add teeth to state and federal warnings about the popular beverages.

The city's ban on Four Loko and similar drinks, which goes into effect after 5 p.m. Thursday, calls for fines of up to $1,000. The county's ban, which goes into effect a day earlier, has staggered fines of up to $500.

Peter Beilenson, Howard County's health officer, said county officials believed the ban was necessary because the safety warnings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state health officials sent mixed messages.

"I went into a couple of liquor stores today to see if I could find the stuff and one store said that they were all banned. But that isn't true, the FDA just threatened," he said. "Another store said he couldn't sell Four Loko but he could sell Joose, which has exactly the same content. The liquor stores didn't seem to know and they're a mile apart. We'll get the strong message out that there is a ban on all these drinks, period."

Even without bans, other counties will be able to remove the alcohol from shelves because the state has determined the beverages are "adulterated."

Still, there may be little left to confiscate. Alcohol wholesalers associations in Maryland already agreed to a request from Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot to voluntarily stop restocking. And many stores are sold out because some fans began stockpiling the drinks.

Twenty-three-year-old Liz Pallia, who lives in Charles Village, has been disappointed to find the cans gone from some stores. She added that legal alternatives just may be worse.

"Irish coffee? Red Bull and vodka? Any sort of alcohol beverage and No-Doz?" she said. "There are plenty of other more expensive, and even more unsafe, options that are still legal. At least with Four Loko, I knew that one can was more than enough to keep me up, out, and having fun. I'm not quite sure what my limits are with the alternatives that I'm left with."

Pallia said it's unfortunate that officials chose to ban the drinks. She suggested officials could have educated people about their dangers and the dangers of drinking in general "rather than assuming that everyone is as incapable of monitoring their intake as the few unfortunate people whose interactions with the drink have made it into the news."

Pallia said she likes the drink because it's cheap, effective and keeps her awake — but that's the problem, according to the FDA and others who have studied the beverages.

According to the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, the drinks have as much as 12 percent alcohol, two to four times the content of the average beer. They also have the caffeine of two or three cups of coffee. They've become popular because they cost only $2 to $3 for 23.5 ounces.

A pharmacy school publication cites a recent study of college students that estimates that 28 percent use the drinks, sometimes known as "liquid cocaine" and "blackout in a can." They produce a sedative effect by depressing the central nervous system and a stimulant effect that reduces the perception of intoxication. That makes users more likely to consume too much and engage in high-risk behaviors — precisely the reason Dr. Oxiris Barbot, city health commissioner, chose to ban them.

"Removing these beverages from the marketplace removes the temptation to abuse them," she said in a statement. "The public health consequences of the masking effects of caffeine in alcoholic beverages are real and include increased risk for unsafe sex practices, driving while under the influence and increased risks for blackouts."

The ban specifically applies to Core High Gravity HG Green, Core High Gravity HG Orange, Lemon Lime Core Spiked, Moonshot, FourLoko, Joose and Max. The ban does not apply to mixed drinks, craft beers, drinks with some naturally occurring alcohol or other brewed drinks not so heavily spiked with caffeine.

The city planned to officially notify 566 licensed facilities on Tuesday. Officials will watch for the drinks as part of their normal inspections but are asking residents to report merchants by calling 311.

The fines apply only in Baltimore City and Howard County. Montgomery County, which acts as the sole wholesale provider there, never made them available, according to the director of the county's department of liquor control.

The drinks became widely available in 2002, and Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler joined 17 other attorneys general last year in asking the FDA to investigate the safety of the product.

The FDA declared the caffeine in the alcoholic drinks an "unsafe food additive" on Nov. 17 and issued warning letters to four manufacturers: Phusion Projects LLC, United Brands Co., Charge Beverages Corp. and New Century Brewing Co.

Phusion, maker of Four Loko, told the FDA it had stopped making the drinks and expects to have all its products off retail shelves by Dec. 13. The other makers said they would follow suit.

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued its own letter Nov. 20 to members of the beverage industry "to urge immediately wholesalers to refrain from distributing and retailers to refrain from selling certain adulterated products."

The state's move is not an official ban, and its officials have no legal authority to fine sellers, but its move should allow officials in other counties to confiscate the drinks considered "adulterated," a department spokesman said.

As for the stores, they're already running dry. The Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association and the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association voluntarily stopped distributing the drinks about two weeks ago, after a request from the comptroller's office. Nicholas G. Manis, deputy director of the beer wholesalers, said he hoped the city and county would allow retailers time to clear their shelves of "stray cans" before issuing fines.

"We immediately stopped accepting any shipments to the state, and by the end of the week there were no more shipments going out to retailers," he said. "I'd be surprised if there was very much product left."

Joe Park, manager of Hampden Parks Liquors at Falls Road and 37th Street, said he'd sold out about two weeks ago, "when it was on the news. They tried to buy more," he said of younger customers.

He said that the drink would sell "pretty well" before the negative publicity, but, "We sold a lot after it was on the news." The store doubled the number of cases it sold in a week from three to six.

On Tuesday, he said "a lot of people are asking for Four Loko."

Sun Staff Writer Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

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