North Carolina’s ABC Commission approved a plan yesterday that it believes will make for an orderly removal of alcoholic energy drinks from store shelves.
The commission voted to create an exemption that allows retailers to return the drinks to beer wholesalers for credit, effective immediately.
The decision comes a day after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued warning letters to four beverage manufacturers — including the maker of Four Loko, a popular caffeinated alcoholic drink — saying that the drinks are being marketed in violation of federal law.
It will be up to wholesalers to decide whether to provide refunds, and that could depend on what manufacturers do, said Jon Williams, the chairman of the commission.
The FDA determined that caffeine is an “unsafe food additive” when mixed with alcoholic beverages. The makers were given 15 days to show that their beverages are safe for consumers or remove them from the marketplace.
The commission’s action also deals with Gov. Bev Perdue’s request — made last week — to pull the drinks from shelves as a public-safety concern.
Williams said that the FDA’s action “effectively acts as a ban on these products that were found not to be safe in their review.”
Only three beverage manufacturers had permission to sell alcoholic energy drinks in the state: Phusion Projects LLC, which makes Four Loko; United Brands Co. Inc., the makers of Joose and Max; and Charge Beverages Corp., the makers of Core High Gravity HG, Core High Gravity HG Orange and Lemon Lime Core Spiked.
“A willing retailer should be able to deal with this pretty quickly,” Williams said.
Officials with the N.C. Petroleum & Convenience Marketers Association could not be reached for comment on how they expect members to respond to the commission’s vote.
Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, said that the group “is waiting for guidance from state attorneys general and ABC boards for how authorities in each state expect this to be handled.”
The commission also recommended changes to ABC rules that would require beer products to disclose on their labels what stimulants, if any, they contain.
The proposed changes would allow the commission to withdraw product approval for wine or beer if public-health concerns arise in the future. Those rules could go into effect in early 2011.
The label proposal deals with a concern of Dr. Mary Claire O’Brien, the lead researcher of a Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center study on the beverages. She said that it isn’t enough to just remove caffeine from the alcohol energy drinks, but also any stimulants similar to caffeine, such as yerba mate and guarana.
The study, initially released in November 2007, found that college students who consume energy drinks along with alcohol are more likely to drink more, get hurt, ride with a drunken driver, and commit or suffer sexual assault. Federal officials cited the study in making their determination.
O’Brien said that the FDA’s ruling is not an end-all to reducing binge drinking. “There has not been determined a safe level for mixing caffeine and alcohol, period,” she said.
Sally Greenberg, the executive director of the National Consumers League, said she wants the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to require alcohol facts on the labels of all alcoholic beverages. “Then consumers would know how much alcohol they are consuming,” she said.
The FDA’s ruling has had its detractors in the scientific community.
“Is there medical or scientific data that this combination is more harmful than drinking the caffeine and alcohol separately?” asked Dr. Gilbert Ross of the American Council on Science and Health. “Why is the government involved in the discussion absent scientific evidence that this combination is particularly toxic?
“I believe the agency is reacting due to media and political pressure.”