Caffeinated alcohol drinks shelved in Ohio

By Kimberly Holmes – bio | email

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19)  - It's the last call for caffeinated alcohol in a can in Ohio.

Ohio state leaders have reached an agreement with the makers of Joose and Four Loko, the most popular brands of caffeinated alcohol drinks. The companies have agreed to not distribute their products within the state. Cara Keithley, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Commerce, said the state is asking distributors and retailers to voluntarily cease marketing, promoting, selling, and distributing alcohol energy drinks.  The state strongly encourages them to participate in the ban as quickly as possible.

Workers at the Kwik & Kold off Daly Road say sales of Joose and Four Loko have skyrocketed in the last four months.

"It's phased out a couple of things that we've been selling on a regular basis," said Herman Travis, a salesman at Kwik & Kold. "I don't know if rappers talk about it or what, but I know it's pretty popular right now."

The owner of Kwik & Kold said he currently sells between 48 and 50 cans a day, but that'll soon change. On Wednesday, Four Loko and Joose were shelved in Ohio; the Ohio Department of Commerce and the Division of Liquor Control announced a ban on the two brands. Four states -- Washington, Michigan, Utah and Oklahoma -- have banned the beverages.

"In recent months, the Division has become aware of serious health concerns associated with the use of alcohol energy drinks, and believes that those products pose a significant threat to the safety and health of Ohio consumers," said Ohio Department of Commerce Director Kimberly Zurz.

State leaders don't have any legal authority to ban alcoholic energy drinks so they've asked the two manufacturers to stop distributing them. The companies agreed.

"You can ask a kid to sit down but that doesn't mean he's going to sit down," said Travis.

Ohio is among a group of several states that have recently banned alco-pops due to health concerns. Alcohol energy drinks, such as Four Loko and Joose, are beverage alcohol products that also contain caffeine, taurine, guarana, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, or other chemical or herbal stimulants.

These products sometimes contain as much as 12 percent alcohol in one 23.5 ounce can, which is equivalent to consuming five or six beers and a cup of coffee in the same serving.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning on Wednesday to makers of seven so called alco-pops. The FDA told the manufacturers to change the formula within 15 days. After that, if the FDA still finds the companies in violation, the agency can seek injunctions to either remove products from store shelves or prevent the company from manufacturing the products.

"If they want to stop distributing it, they're going to lose a lot of business," said Bennett Whethers. "I think they ought to just change it up some. Take the alcohol out of it, or take the caffeine out of it."

On Tuesday, the maker of Four Loko agreed to do just that.

Phusion Projects announced yesterday that it will remove the caffeine. The company's founders said they still believe a mix of alcohol and caffeine is safe, but that they're up against a "politically-charged regulatory environment."

In a statement emailed to Fox19, a company spokesperson writes:

"Yesterday, we agreed to voluntarily cease distribution of our caffeinated products in Ohio. This agreement was reached in collaboration with the Liquor Control Division of the Ohio Department of Commerce and follows our announcement yesterday to reformulate our products nationwide removing caffeine, guarana and taurine.

"Our company has a history of cooperating with national, state and local officials. For example, we added additional label warnings to our cans at the request of regulators; our alcohol-by-volume warnings are in a font as large as is allowed by law; and, where required, we sell versions of our products with reduced alcohol content.

"We work with our distributors to share information about the appropriate way to stock and market our products. We work with retailers to provide point of sale information that reinforces the importance of asking for ID when selling any alcoholic beverage. We include warnings and labels on our cans that go above and beyond what the federal government requires – helping to ensure that consumers are informed and that our products don't end up in the hands of minors.

"We still believe that combining caffeine and alcohol is safe - if that weren't the case, Irish coffees and rum and colas would be under scrutiny as well. But we want our company to be known for cooperation and collaboration, not controversy."

Still, it won't matter as liquors stores in Ohio won't be able to purchase any more of the drink.

"It's part of our stimulus package," said Travis. "It wouldn't be fair to us."

Local liquor stores in Ohio were reportedly notified on Wednesday about the ban, but none of the nearly dozen store owners Fox19 spoke with had heard of the agreement.

Keithley said there's still a gray area when it comes to selling the drinks in restaurants and bars in Ohio.

Copyright 2010 FOX19. All Rights Reserved.