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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Four Loko is among the high-caffeine alcoholic beverages that have come under fire.

Chain pulls potent drink

Belmont Beverage announced Tuesday it has pulled Four Loko – a caffeine- and alcohol-infused drink – from the shelves of its 27 liquor stores as negative publicity surrounding the product grows.

Plus, the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers, a statewide group for package store owners, called for the Indiana General Assembly to ban Four Loko and other high-energy, high-alcohol beverages throughout Indiana.

“I think that’s what’s going to happen,” said Gary Gardner, operations manager for Belmont Beverage and a board member for the association of beverage retailers.

Known as “blackout in a can,” a 23.5-ounce can of the malt liquor has an alcohol content of 12 percent. It comes in various fruit flavors, is packaged in bright colors and is popular among college students. The beverage and others like it are also being scrutinized by the Food and Drug Administration.

Last month, several Central Washington University students were hospitalized after drinking too much Four Loko, according to published reports. Since then, Washington and Michigan have banned the sale of such beverages.

Gardner said Tuesday his Bellmont Beverage stores still have products such as Joose, which is similar to Four Loko in caffeine and alcohol content, available for purchase. He said he removed Four Loko because that was the product coming under fire but added that he’s open to removing other products, too.

His stores will also continue to sell products that can be mixed into high-caffeine and high-alcohol concoctions, such as vodka or Jägermeister, which can be combined with Red Bull.

“No one I can think of drinks 24 ounces of Jäger-bombs,” Gardner said, referring to the name of a drink that mixes the liquor with Red Bull.

Not every member of the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers is on board with the push for a ban.

“Until the legislature deems it illegal in Indiana, we’re going to sell it,” said Andy Lebamoff, a board member of the association and president of Cap N Cork.

In an interview last month, Lebamoff said his stores sell one or two cases of Four Loko a week. Tuesday, he noted that his company promotes responsible drinking and does not sell any product to those younger than 21.

“The thing that worries me about pulling a product from the shelf that’s legal is where does it stop?” Lebamoff said. “Just picking on one product that is a premixed product does not solve the problem of mixing energy drinks and alcohol.”

The groundswell for Indiana liquor stores to remove Four Loko and similar beverages from the shelves may have begun in Bloomington, according to Gardner, where Big Red Liquors stopped selling such products last week.

“We stopped because it was the right thing to do,” said Wade Shanower, president of Big Red Liquors, which has 20 stores. “I felt there are too many issues being created with those beverages. People aren’t geared to the effect that product is going to have on their metabolism.”

While local liquor store officials said such products were not huge sellers in the Fort Wayne area, it was different in Bloomington, according to Shanower.

As a result of his self-imposed ban, he has received criticism from those in Bloomington, home of Indiana University.

“We have a lot of students quite annoyed with us,” Shanower said.

Last November, the Food and Drug Administration sent letters to various companies that produce such alcoholic energy drinks asking them to prove their products were safe. Chicago-based Phusion Projects LLC, the creators of Four Loko, received one of the letters.

In a statement e-mailed to The Journal Gazette on Tuesday, Phusion Projects officials said the company has sent data about the safety of their product to the FDA.

The statement said an independent panel of scientific and food safety experts found that adding caffeine to alcohol is safe and that one can of Four Loko has about the same amount of caffeine as a tall Starbucks coffee.

“People have safely mixed and consumed alcohol and caffeine products for years; having coffee after a meal with wine, or consuming rum and cola, an Irish coffee, or a Red Bull and Vodka are all popular practices,” the statement read. “Four Loko has roughly the same alcohol content as some craft beers, wine, and far less alcohol by volume than hard liquor.”

In the statement, Phusion Projects officials expressed disappointment in the efforts to ban their products while appreciating “any state’s concern for its citizens.”

Since Four Loko began making news, Phusion Projects has sent letters to various university presidents asking for a discussion about the products.

The company’s website is also plastered with responsible drinking messages.

And the company plans to fight the Michigan ban because that state’s alcohol control commission voted on an action against such beverages with only three of its five members present.

A media release on the company’s website said the vote was 2-1.

“We are proud of the work we do to ensure our products are safe and used properly and only by adults of legal drinking age,” the statement to The Journal Gazette said. “However, curbing alcohol abuse will not be accomplished by singling out a lone product or beverage category.”