R.I. Four Loko ban up for debate in January

Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010

A state senator pre-filed legislation yesterday to ban the caffeinated alcoholic beverage Four Loko in Rhode Island.

The drink, which Sen. John Tassoni, D-Smithfield and North Smithfield, said has already been banned at the University of Rhode Island, is also illegal in Washington, Michigan and Oklahoma, NPR reported earlier this month. Vendors only sell decaffeinated versions of the drink in New York, based on an agreement between that state and Four Loko producer Phusion Projects.

“The potency of four beers — the alcohol that’s contained in there — combined with the caffeine, is a recipe for disaster, and that’s proven,” Tassoni said. “I believe the students don’t realize how potent it is. Or maybe they do.”

According to Phusion Projects’ website, the drink contains “roughly” the same amount of caffeine as a small Starbucks coffee, and either six or 12 percent alcohol by volume, depending on state regulations. In Rhode Island, its alcohol content is 12 percent.

Tassoni said that he will probably introduce the bill in early January, during the first days of the General Assembly’s next session. He said he believes initiatives to ban the drink are “picking up momentum” across the nation.

Phusion Projects will be changing its products to eliminate sources of caffeine, the company announced in a press release Tuesday. The FDA is also expected to enact national restrictions on caffeinated alcoholic beverages in the next week, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday.

Tassoni said he believes the drink specifically targets underage drinkers, a claim Phusion Projects’ website denies.

Jake Cohen ’13, who said he drinks Four Loko “once in a while,” said he does not believe the drink is marketed to underage drinkers, although he noted that it is “cheap.” Cohen said he opposes the idea of a ban.

“If you drink anything too much, it’s obviously going to be a bad thing,” he said. “Anything can be abused and drunk too much.”

State Senator Rhoda Perry, D-Providence — whose district includes College Hill — is a member of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. While she is still in the process of researching the drink, she said she would vote in favor of the bill if her research “continues to indicate” that Four Loko is a dangerous product.

“If we see that there is a legitimate reason for prohibiting the sale of this to young people in our state, then I think (the bill) would have a serious possibility of passing,” Perry said.

Christian Chirino, chairman of the Rhode Island Libertarian Party, said that although he has not closely followed the bill, he believes that its passage would be “detrimental” to the relationship between citizens and the state.

“Folks should have the right to choose and have the individual common sense to know when enough is enough to drink,” Chirino said.

He said that if the ban passes, he hopes students would protest the action.

Perry said a ban would hurt business for local alcohol vendors, which could be an issue given the state’s slow economic climate.

But Tassoni said many liquor vendors that carry the drink have expressed support for his bill.

Greg Sperduti, general manager at Campus Fine Wines on Brook Street, said his store does not carry Four Loko and that he would support the ban.

“I just don’t like what it represents,” Sperduti said. “It just gets kids blacked out drunk.”