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The Nation : A risky mix or safe to drink? : The FDA asks 27 makers of alcohol- caffeine beverages to prove their safety.

November 15, 2009|Andrew Zajac and Mary MacVean

WASHINGTON AND LOS ANGELES — Alcoholic energy drinks, marketed under provocative names such as Evil Eye, Max Fury and Slingshot Party Gel, have quickly gained a foothold among younger drinkers.

Now the producers of those beverages have a new, perhaps unwanted audience. The Food and Drug Administration on Friday requested proof from the companies that their products, which blend caffeine and alcohol, are safe.

The FDA never has approved the addition of caffeine to an alcoholic beverage, and a task force of state attorneys general and other officials has urged the agency to scrutinize the combination.

The task force argues that the caffeine can mask the intoxicating effects of alcohol, possibly leading to an increase in drunk driving, sexual assault and other destructive behavior.

In the absence of FDA approval, the burden of proving that a new combination of food or drink is safe falls on the manufacturer, said Joshua Sharfstein, the agency's principal deputy commissioner.

"We're asking for their side of the story," he said. "Why they consider adding caffeine to be safe or legal."

Sharfstein added that "the FDA has not reached a conclusion" about the drinks' safety, "but we've heard some serious concerns."

If the FDA determines that caffeine in the alcoholic drinks is unsafe, it could force them off the market.

In a Sept. 25 letter to the FDA, the task force said, "There is a strong emerging consensus of scientific opinion that the combination of caffeine and alcohol . . . poses a serious public health risk."

"The ultimate goal is a nationwide ban on alcohol-energy drinks marketed to young drinkers," said Connecticut Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal, a co-chairman of the task force, which includes the attorneys general of California, Illinois and New York and 14 other state, territorial and city law enforcement officials.

Drink makers have 30 days to respond to the FDA request.

"It's way past the time these products should have been pulled," said Michele Simon, research and policy director at the Marin Institute, an alcohol watchdog group. "I can't imagine what these companies could come up with to satisfy the FDA's request."

Simon said the development of alcoholic energy products follows the popularity of combining the Red Bull energy drink with vodka in the late 1990s.

The nation's two largest brewers, Anheuser-Busch Cos. and MillerCoors, stopped selling caffeinated alcoholic beverages last year, after an investigation by the task force.

Many of the 27 firms targeted Friday by the FDA offer products explicitly billed as alcoholic energy drinks.

Spokesmen for two of the companies, Constellation Brands Inc. and Diageo North America, said they already had stopped production of the beverages.

Other firms named by the FDA do not market them as energy beverages. One such company is Delicious Brands, the San Francisco-based maker of Lotus Vodka.

Chief Executive Rob Bailey said the vodka has caffeine, vitamins and other ingredients and is marketed to consumers in their 30s for fine dining, not as an energy drink. He said his company "will absolutely comply" with the FDA's request, but "brands like ours are being hit in the crossfire."

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azajac@latimes.com

mary.macvean@latimes.com

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