Caffeinated, potent alcoholic beverages like this one soon will be banned in Michigan.
By CHRIS JACKETT
The alcoholic beverage industry has grown and evolved a great deal during the past few decades. However, the latest strand of popular beverages soon will be taken off shelves throughout the state.
The Michigan Liquor Control Commission passed an order Nov. 4 that will remove alcoholic energy drinks from state store shelves within 30 days. A key factor in the ban was an alcoholic energy drink’s role in the alleged rape of a 14-year-old Melvindale High School student following the Oct. 2 homecoming dance.
The teen testified Oct. 25 that she had mixed rum into a 24-ounce can of Four Loko, a caffeinated energy drink with 12 percent alcohol content. She also had some cognac the same evening prior to attending a homecoming after-party at Comfort Inn & Suites, 17600 Dix Road in Melvindale, where the rape occurred.
“It’s such a caffeine high. When you get drunk, you get that high feeling of being drunk,” said Melvindale Detective Cpl. David Taft, who is handling the rape investigation. “When you have that much caffeine in you, you don’t realize how you’re drunk until you start coming down and pass out.
“With this drink, all you can taste is the fruit, and you don’t realize how much alcohol you’re taking. For under $6, you can overdose.”
During his research on the drink for the rape investigation, Taft became a key proponent of removing all alcoholic energy drinks from store shelves throughout the state.
“I’ve really been pushing it,” he said. “I pushed it all the way to Lansing. I really pushed hard for it. The alcohol energy drink has been around, but not with this high of alcohol content.
“You don’t have to drink that much. You can have one 24-ounce can and mix it with a pint of vodka, or whatever, and get totally trashed.”
Eddie Ahmad, manager at Westborn Party Store in Dearborn, said alcoholic energy drinks have been increasingly popular within the past year, especially among younger drinkers.
“It’s the flavors and stuff. Beer sales overall in the U.S. have been down because of the flavored drinks and flavored liquors,” Ahmad said. “Beer sales are 30 to 40 percent down from previous years. Everything’s flavored. It’s unbelievable.
“I think it’s all about the marketing. It’s for a new crowd, a new generation. They want to beat the market.”
Taft said one Melvindale store mistakenly sold an alcoholic energy beverage to a customer without carding the person because of the colorful packaging.
“There was a business and they were busy, and it was colorful and he didn’t realize it was an alcoholic drink,” Taft said. “(Manufacturers) admit it’s targeted for younger buyers.”
Although Ahmad said the neighborhood surrounding his store brings in fewer young drinkers that other areas, Westborn still goes through a case of Four Loko every two weeks.
“People are curious about it,” Ahmad said. “It goes down like a punch, I heard. I’ve never had it. Some people buy it to try it. Four Loko and Joose have all this caffeine, and that’ll make you go crazy. They want the quick buzz. When the caffeine wears out, that’s when the alcohol really hits you.”
Taft said the caffeine is the fatal ingredient, because someone consuming the drink doesn’t realize how much alcohol is in their system.
“It doesn’t give you the normal drunk feeling because of the high amount of caffeine,” Taft said. “You’re putting so much alcohol in your system at one time.
“You’re going to get a jittery excited-type feeling that causes some people to do things they normally wouldn’t do, like drive drunk. You’re wide awake is what it does. They have no way of knowing when to stop.”
Dr. Christina Lucas, a family physician at Oakwood Southshore Medical Center in Trenton, said the drinks are dangerous for anyone.
“When you’re giving yourself a stimulant and a depressant, you’re slowing down your respiratory rate, but exciting your heart rate,” she said. “The bottom line is don’t mix stuff. They’re overdosing with a depressant. It’s not a good idea.”
She also said the holiday season brings an additional danger to some drinkers. Holiday Heart Syndrome, otherwise known as alcoholic cardiomyopathy, results in an irregular heartbeat and often is caused by binge drinking, especially with people who don’t drink regularly.
“People who don’t drink often drink a lot and develop a heart condition,” Lucas said, noting that it causes the heart muscle to stretch. “If you’re not used to consuming alcohol, moderation is the key.”
Taft said the alcoholic energy drinks are most dangerous for younger and inexperienced drinkers.
“Kids haven’t experienced this feeling,” he said. “This is a different type of intoxication. The caffeine ups your blood pressure and the alcohol ups your blood pressure, and when you come down is when you pass out. It’s almost more like a drug. I wouldn’t even consider it a beverage.
“I’m glad it’s banned. Anything could happen. God forbid you get a car full of kids and they crash and you have multiple fatalities because of this.”
The recent rape incident in Melvindale is cited as an example of the drink’s dangers in the state’s Nov. 3 motion that was approved the next day. It also said “there are five cups of coffee and 12 shots of liquor available for $3 in one 24-ounce can of an alcohol energy drink,” which experts say is disputable and varies between different drinks.
The state commission’s ban follows suit with one in Utah and by several universities throughout the nation.
“I’m surprised because they even let it go that far,” Ahmad said of the state allowing such drinks to be sold in the first place.
Among the drinks listed in the commission’s ban are various flavors of each Four Loko, Joose, Max, 808, Axis, Core, Smirnoff Raw, Cape Noctum A.M., DE, Jack Daniel’s Country Cocktail Black Jack Cola and California Organic Brewery’s Mateveza.
“I heard that these companies are going to fight it in court,” Ahmad said. “I think they’ll bring it back out without the caffeine.”
Ahmad also said it wasn’t clear to him whether the companies would take back the products and reimburse vendors for their drink inventories, or if vendors like Westborn simply would have to sell their stock of alcoholic energy drinks by the state’s Dec. 4 deadline.
(Contact Chris Jackett at [email protected])