ANNAPOLIS — Associations representing Maryland’s liquor stores and beer wholesalers urged their members Wednesday to voluntarily stop selling caffeinated alcoholic beverages after Comptroller Peter Franchot called the drinks “a clear public health and public safety threat.”
Franchot’s comments followed by two weeks the death of 21-year-old Courtney Spurry, who was killed when she crashed a pickup truck into a telephone pole in St. Michaels after family and friends said she had been drinking Four Loko. The beverage is sold in 23.5-ounce cans, is 12 percent alcohol and has as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, according to its manufacturer’s website.
“You have people who believe they can drive, feel they can still function, while in reality their capacity for any activity is severely limited,” Franchot said at Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting. “It’s not just a Maryland issue.”
Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration issued warning letters Wednesday to four manufacturers of alcoholic energy drinks often consumed by college students, saying the caffeine added to their beverages is an “unsafe food additive.”
The combination of caffeine and alcohol in the drinks creates a public health concern and can lead to “a state of wide-awake drunk,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. Evidence has shown their consumption has led to alcohol poisoning, car accidents and assaults, she said.
Franchot acknowledged the potential of FDA action, but said it was imperative the state’s alcohol distributors and retailers take action.
“I don’t want to wait for the federal regulatory process to run its due course on an issue with such time sensitivity,” he said. “It’s no secret that the private sector has the ability to move faster than the federal government.”
After being contacted by Franchot, the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Inc. and Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association both moved to institute de facto bans on the alcoholic caffeinated beverages.
The wholesalers group voted to urge their members to stop accepting shipment of the products starting Wednesday while the MSLBA board pushed its member restaurants, bars and package stores to stop selling them.
Nick Manis, deputy director of the wholesalers group, said he expects 100 percent participation among his members.
“Our members had some concerns as you might imagine because the products have not been deemed illegal,” Manis said. “But at the end of the day, they decided it was in the best interest of their businesses that they stop selling them.”
Following the FDA’s decision, the government could eventually seize the products if the companies continue to make and market them. The companies have 15 days to respond to the letters and either explain how they will take their products off the market or defend their drinks as safe.
Phusion Projects, the Chicago-based brewer of Four Loko, announced it would remove caffeine, guarana and taurine from its products after failing to “navigate a difficult and politically-charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels.”
“We have repeatedly contended — and still believe, as do many people throughout the country — that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe,” the company’s founders wrote. “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.”
The FDA said it views Phusion Projects’ announcement as a positive step, but officials said they have not yet heard directly from the company about its timeline for taking the drinks off the market. The FDA also sent letters to Charge Beverages Corp., New Century Brewing Co., and United Brands Company Inc.
Other states, including Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, have opened reviews of the beverages or banned them outright in recent weeks.
Last year, the FDA notified more than two dozen manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages that it never had specifically approved the addition of caffeine to alcoholic drinks and began studying whether it was unsafe and should be outlawed. The agency noted the mix’s growing popularity among college students and its potential health and safety issues.
Wednesday’s letters focused on seven drinks made by four manufacturers, but FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein said he expects the agency’s message to resonate.
“We expect these warning letters to be read across the industry,” he said.