By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
March 26, 2014
Four Loko, a well-known “binge-in-a-can” alco-pop, may not be marketed as freely to young drinkers thanks to a settlement announced Tuesday between Phusion Projects LLC and a coalition of 20 states, including North Carolina. But the agreement is little more than a slap on the wrist for the Chicago-based company, according to industry watchdog Alcohol Justice.
“We are appalled by the arrogance of the president of Phusion, as the company continues to refuse to admit any wrongdoing or to even admit that alcohol and caffeine should not be mixed,” said the organization’s Executive Director Bruce Lee Livingston.
“We applaud the AGs (attorneys general) for doing what they can, but this agreement can’t possibly go far enough to deal with the problems caused by these products.”
In announcing the agreement, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper said the “super-sized, fruit flavored alcoholic beverages encourage binge drinking among young people,” and added that just one of the drinks could make a person “quickly and dangerously drunk.”
As part of the settlement, Phusion promised not to produce or sell caffeinated alcohol beverages (CABs). Further, the company says it will not promote binge drinking, sell to underage drinkers, hire persons younger than 25 — or those who look younger than 21— for ads, promote alco-pops on college property (except at licensed retail establishments), use logos or mascots of schools in promotional materials or promote merchandise bearing alcoholic beverage names to underage persons. Phusion Projects also agreed to pay $400,000 to the states, $14,047 of which will come to North Carolina.
Livingston said the fine was “not of substance” and that, although the agreement contained “some interesting controls on monitoring advertising,” overall the company is making no concessions.
“Unfortunately, we have to agree with Alcohol Justice that there is little more than window dressing here,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League.
“Their promise not to manufacture alco-pops that contain caffeine is a moot point, because they were pressured by the FDA into taking the caffeine out of their formula back in 2010. We can only hope that they will adhere to the rules regarding marketing, none of which seem extreme in the least.”
The score of states who signed the agreement had accused Phusion Projects of violating consumer protection and trade practice statutes by marketing its formerly caffeinated malt beverage to underage drinkers, promoting excessive consumption and misuse and failing to disclose the effect of mixing alcohol with caffeine.
Tuesday’s announcement of the settlement was the most recent action in a long-term effort to thwart the effects of the illicit products that appeal so strongly to youth. Often sold in 23.5-ounce cans, the controversial drinks include up to 12 percent alcohol (equivalent to about a half dozen 12 oz. Busch Lights) and initially featured 156 milligrams of caffeine (as much as a tall Starbucks coffee). The party drink of choice on many college campuses, the binge-in-a-can beverages were blamed for creating wide awake drunks who often harmed themselves and others.
The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter to Phusion in November 2010, telling the company that there was no food additive regulation authorizing the use of caffeine as a direct addition to alcohol beverages, after which the company came out with a new formula omitting caffeine, guarana and taurine. More than a year later, the Federal Trade Commission made a deal with the company allowing it to avoid admitting any wrongdoing in its marketing practices as long as it added additional labeling to its Four Loko containers to reflect their high volume of alcohol and added a resealable cap.
Most recently, Phusion is also being required to police its websites and social media to remove posts that depict irresponsible consumption of its products or mixing the products with caffeinated drinks. The company agreed not to use songs or videos that depict alcohol abuse to promote its products in the media and also pledged to leave Santa Claus out of their ads.
“Four Loko is the poster child of advertising to children,” Livingston said.
“It’s hard to say this is a step in the right direction, maybe a statement in the right direction,” he said. “This company has a history of making agreements and then pushing the envelope.”
The N.C. Alcohol Policy Alliance applauded Attorney General Cooper’s leadership on this issue, but said there is significant work yet to be done.
“It is our business to make it harder for kids to drink alcohol, and these syrupy, flavored drinks on corner store shelves only make it easier,” said Dylan Ellerbee, the group’s executive director.
“Full of spirits, not beer, North Carolina should be selling Four Loko and other similar beverages in ABC stores not corner stores.”
Livingston said rather than focusing on one product from one company, the entire line of “sweet, bubbly, very enticing” high-octane beverages should be taken off the market.
“These products are meant to be consumed by youth and especially marketed to them,” he said. “They are cheap, especially considering the amount of alcohol you can get in a can, they are cheaper sometimes than malt liquor.”
Alcohol Justice is calling not only on state legislatures to limit where the beverages can be sold, but is also waging a Alcopop Free Zone campaign to involve communities in the fight.