November 17, 2010
By Mareesa Nicosia
The Saratogian

SARATOGA SPRINGS — A couple of local businesses are clearing their shelves of the controversial caffeinated alcoholic drink Four Loko, ahead of a Dec. 10 deadline the state has put in place for distributors to purge their inventory.

“We carried Four Loko in less than half of our shops and we pulled it all this morning,” Stewart’s Shops Marketing Director Tom Mailey said Monday.

He said the fruity malt drinks — which are sold in colorful, 23.5 ounce cans — weren’t a huge seller and that one shop might sell seven or eight a week.

Four Loko is 12 percent alcohol by volume — an amount equivalent to about four beers — and has as much caffeine as 12-ounce coffee, in addition to taurine, guarana and sweeteners.

“It’s been a controversial beverage late in its life, and we just watched as the story unfolded and we made our moves accordingly,” Mailey said.

An agreement announced by Gov. David Paterson and the state Liquor Authority over the weekend assures that the makers of Four Loko, three Ohio State University graduates who operate as the company Phusion Projects, will stop shipping the beverages to New York by Friday. According to the company’s website, the agreement doesn’t prohibit it from selling non-caffeinated versions of the drink in New York.

The state’s largest beer distributors also agreed to stop selling caffeinated alcoholic drinks, no matter the brand.

Four other states — Michigan, Washington, Utah and Oklahoma — have already banned Four Loko, and the federal Food and Drug Administration has been reviewing the drink’s safety since 2009.

Price Chopper spokeswoman Mona Golub said the supermarket chain never carried Four Loko because it didn’t receive any customer requests for it.

Daniel Robbins, an assistant manager at Minogue’s Beverage Center on West Avenue, which sells a variety of alcoholic energy drink brands, said he believes sales of Four Loko specifically picked up following news in October that several students at a Washington state university were sickened after consuming it in excess at an off-campus party.

“Until recently, it hasn’t been a big seller. But then you hear on TV about the kids getting sick because they were slamming these down, and people ask for it,” Robbins said.

He added the store would clear out its inventory of the drinks by the state deadline.

Local officials seemed to be in agreement with the state’s decision.

“Anytime (the state) takes steps to help ensure people stay safe, we’re all in favor of it,” city police spokesman Lt. Greg Veitch said.

The police department has no confirmation that the drinks have been involved in any recent incidents in Saratoga Springs, Veitch said, but “we suspect in a number of cases that they may have played a part.”

Maureen Cary, coordinator of the Saratoga Partnership for Prevention, said the caffeinated alcoholic drinks were the topic of discussion at a meeting of the organization last week.

“The combination of the caffeine and the high percentage of alcohol is a very dangerous mixture,” Cary said. “I’m glad to see that the government and the state Liquor Authority have stepped in to ban the distribution of these drinks.”

Cary said she’s just as unhappy with the product’s contents as she is with its packaging — a colorful camouflage similar to the labels of other drinks that do not contain alcohol.

“The packaging is targeted directly to a young audience, and any consumer, kids especially, might not understand that the alcohol content is exceptionally high,” she said.

If the state hadn’t gone ahead with its decision, Partnership for Prevention members had planned to petition local store owners to voluntarily pull it from their shelves, Cary said.

But the issue is less about any certain product and more about underage abuse and binge drinking, said Dale Cocca of Saratoga Springs.

“Banning the all-in-one combination of a few legal substances is fickle and pointed legislation,” he wrote in response to a reader query on The Saratogian’s Facebook page Monday. “I doubt we’ll see fewer kids giving up on the idea of binge-drinking because you can’t buy the energy drink already mixed with the alcoholic drink.”

James Lyness, a sophomore at Skidmore College, said Four Loko and similar beverages, like Joose, “embody binge drinking and irresponsibility.”

“It’s just a way for young high school and college kids to get drunk fast and inexpensively,” Lyness said. “It’s pretty frightening because it’s just one can, yet it has such a high effect. I agree with the banning of it, but it’s a matter of the people who have been (abusing) it, not just the drink itself.”