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October 25, 2010
Alcoholic Energy Drinks, Not Date-Rape Drugs, Linked to Roslyn Party Hospitalizations

ELLENSBURG, Wash. — Investigators have linked alcoholic “energy” drinks to the hospitalization of nine college students after a party in Roslyn, Wash., on Oct. 9. The investigation also concluded that no students were given drugs or alcohol without their knowledge and that no sexual assault occurred.

As a result of the investigation, Central Washington University (CWU) announced today at a press conference that alcoholic energy drinks (AEDs) would be banned at CWU pending a thorough review of drug and alcohol education programs and policies and a study of the dangers associated with the drinks, which are caffeinated malt liquor.

Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, who will become president of the National Association of Attorneys General in June, announced he would renew a push for a national restriction on the sale of caffeinated malt liquor and, barring action by the federal government, for a ban of the beverage in Washington state. Today McKenna sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notifying the agency about the results of the Roslyn investigation. The FDA is currently responding to a Sept. 2009 letter from state attorneys general requesting that the agency examine whether the use of caffeine in alcoholic beverages is safe.

“It’s time to bring an end to the sale of alcoholic energy drinks,” said McKenna, who serves on the state’s Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking. “They’re marketed to kids by using fruit flavors that mask the taste of alcohol and they have such high levels of stimulants that people have no idea how inebriated they really are. They’re packaged just like non-alcoholic drinks, but include a dangerous dose of malt liquor.”

CWU President James L. Gaudino said the blood alcohol levels of hospitalized students ranged from .123 to .35.  A blood alcohol concentration of .3 is considered lethal. Each student had consumed a caffeinated malt liquor, “Four Loko”; some had used it with other alcohol.

"The health and safety of our students has to come first,” said Gaudino in announcing the ban on alcoholic energy drinks. “We need to make sure that we're sending a strong message to students about the dangers of AEDs and we need to know more about the way it affects health and behavior.”

The investigation revealed that students drank caffeinated malt liquor, rum, vodka, and/or beer at the party, 30 miles west of CWU. No students said they had been given alcohol or drugs without their knowledge. No sexual assault occurred and women were not "targeted." No drugs were found in the house. No connection was found between the color of plastic cups—used primarily to play a drinking game—and the students who became ill.

One 23.5-ounce can of Four Loko, which is 12-percent alcohol, is comparable to drinking five or six beers. Health experts say that caffeine suspends the effects of alcohol, allowing people to continue drinking long after they normally would have stopped consuming non-caffeinated alcohol. The cans of the drink, which were found at the Roslyn house where the party occurred, sell for about $2.50, are carbonated, and contain high doses of caffeine and sugar.

Professor Ken Briggs, chair of CWU’s Department of Physical Education, School and Public Health, said Four Loko, also known as “blackout in a can” or “liquid cocaine,” is one of the most popular of the 25 or more alcoholic energy drinks on the market. According to Briggs, the caffeine makes AEDs “a binge-drinker's dream” because the caffeine and other stimulants allow a drinker to ingest larger volumes of alcohol without passing out.

“Being able to feel the effects of tiredness, loss of coordination and even passing out or vomiting are the body’s defenses against consuming doses of alcohol that will kill you,” said Briggs, adding that drinkers like to chug AEDs as quickly as possible and chase them with vodka or rum. “Regardless, once the blood alcohol level reaches a certain level you can drop like a box of rocks.”

Briggs added that women process alcohol differently than men. “When men and women drink equivalent amounts of alcohol, women will have a higher blood alcohol concentration due to lower body weight, more body fat and less of an enzyme that breaks down the alcohol in the body,” he said.

The attorney general has been pressing the FDA to end the sale of alcoholic energy drinks. In 2010, the Office of the Attorney General endorsed and testified in support of House Bill 2804, which would have banned the beverages in Washington state. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tami Green (D-Lakewood), was requested by the Washington State Liquor Control Board. HB 2804 died in the Senate Rules Committee. McKenna said that if the FDA doesn’t soon ban the sale of alcoholic energy drinks his office will again join the Liquor Control Board and the Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking in urging passage of the state ban on alcoholic energy drinks.

Police reports for the evening of Oct. 8 and the morning of Oct. 9 are available, however, the Roslyn investigation is not closed. Detectives are still trying to find out where students, all of whom were younger than 21, obtained the alcoholic beverages. About 40 of the students interviewed by detectives will be interviewed by student conduct officers beginning today. Only two of the 40 have been involved in previous drug- or alcohol-related incidents at CWU.

Participants in the news conference also included Chief Scott Ferguson, Cle Elum-Roslyn-South Cle Elum Police, and Chief Steve Rittereiser, CWU Police.

Linda Schactler, CWU Director of Public Affairs, 509-963-1384;
Janelle Guthrie, Director of Communications, (360) 586-0725

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