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Did Alcoholic Beverage Sicken Students? Not Us, Says Four Loko

Man passed out with Four Loko in the foreground.
Man passed out with Four Loko in the foreground. (

ELLENSBURG, Wash. (CBS/AP) Can mixing alcohol and caffeine really make you sick?

That's the question many are asking after nearly a dozen Central Washington University students became ill at an off-campus party this month. At first a date-rape drug was blamed, but the real culprit, officials now say, was a popular drink called Four Loko, which mixes high doses of alcohol and caffeine.

A 23.5-ounce can of Four Loko sells for about $2.50 and has an alcohol content of 12 percent, making it comparable to drinking five to six beers. The caffeine in the drink can also suspend the effects of alcohol consumption, allowing a person to consume more than usual, officials said.

Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna is calling for a ban on the beverage. The potent brew already got the boot in New Jersey's Ramapo college where 23 students were hospitalized over several weeks.

But Phusion Projects Inc., of Chicago, which makes Four Loko, vigorously defends the drink.

"Our products contain less alcohol than an average rum and cola, less alcohol and caffeine than an average Red Bull and vodka, and are comparable to having coffee after a meal with a couple glasses of wine," they said in a statement to CBS News.  The company also claims they sent the FDA self-funded research which shows the drinks are safe.  

"One of these cans doesn't sound that terribly excessive," says Dr. David H. Newman, the clinical research director of emergency medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York. But he cautions drinking more, as students often do, can be dangerous.

"If it's being drunk in more than one can," he tells CBS News, "that's a very large amount of alcohol. You can have alcohol toxicity. The caffeine stimulation may mask some of the initial effects so they may drink more than they otherwise would."

As for the FDA, the agency is still mulling it over.  Until then, perhaps cautious drinkers should can it.