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Push to ban alcoholic energy drinks started in Camden

Posted: January 25, 2011 4:09 p.m.
Updated: January 26, 2011 5:00 a.m.
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Four Loko. Joose. Moonshot. These are just some of the alcoholic energy drinks available at local convenience stores. But they may not be on shelves much longer thanks to a movement that started in Camden to ban the beverages.

While Ed Corey was still working as a detective with the Camden Police Department (CPD) as a part of the Kershaw County Alcohol Enforcement Team (AET), he started hearing about the drinks. He took his concerns to CPD Chief Joe Floyd. Floyd, in turn, took the matter up with State Rep. Laurie Slade Funderburk of Camden.

“Ed came to me about this new product that he had a lot of concerns with,” said Floyd during a joint interview with Corey and Funderburk.

The concern was that products like Four Loko and Joose actually have a higher percentage of alcohol content than beer.

So Funderburk introduced a bill to ban the drinks in South Carolina, H 3246, which would “prohibit the importation, production, manufacture, distribution or sale of alcoholic energy drinks and caffeinated malt beverages and provide penalties.”

The State House General Laws Subcommittee, of which Funderburk is a member, heard testimony from representatives of the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department and the Lexington-Richland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council (LRADAC) Jan. 20. The subcommittee voted in favor of sending the bill on to the House Judiciary Committee, which was expected to discuss the bill Tuesday and vote on whether to send it to the full House.

“Where beer has about a 4 or 5 percent alcoholic content, these drinks are up to 12 percent alcohol,” said Funderburk. “They’re packaged colorfully and marketed to appeal to young people. They’re fruity flavored … 23.4-ounce bottles for $2.30.”

Corey said he began hearing about the drinks from young people in an ALPHA Center/5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office program. He said local school principals heard about the drinks, too, and alerted the ALPHA Center and law enforcement.

“These were the primary thing the kids said they were using at parties,” said Corey, now captain of investigations with the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office. “They said a couple of them was like having a case of beer.”

The AET’s concern was that young people consuming the drinks were still driving afterward. The danger comes from the caffeine that puts the “energy” into “alcoholic energy drinks.”

Funderburk said the drinks appeal to those who don’t like the taste of beer and that the caffeine masks one of the most important effects of alcohol: knowing you’re drunk.

“The caffeine gives you a false sense of sobriety,” said Funderburk. “It keeps you energetic so you drink and party longer, which could lead to alcohol poisoning.”

And because drinkers don’t feel like they’re drunk, they go ahead and try to drive home.

“A University of Florida study found that those who consume alcoholic energy drinks are four more times likely to get behind the wheel,” said Funderburk.

“When you pass out, you stop drinking,” added Floyd. “With the caffeine you don’t pass out. The risk of alcohol poisoning is greater.”

The AET and ALPHA Center are already working to combat the problem.

In 2010, the two groups teamed up to show teens and parents what it’s like to be drunk -- without having to take a drink. They obtained special goggles that, when worn, simulate what the world looks like through intoxicated eyes.

“We have them try to drive a golf cart,” said Corey. “When they get their hands on them, they run into where they make a believer out of the kids.”

Last November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -- calling the beverages “a troubling mix” -- warned four energy drink manufacturers that their products “pose a public health concern.” While the makers of Moonshot discontinued their product and Four Loko’s manufacturer reformulated their drink, Joose’s didn’t, said Funderburk.

“I sent an intern out to see if they could still purchase the drinks and she was able to without any problem,” she said.

At one store, the intern found both the original Four Loko and Joose on the shelves; at another, she only saw Joose -- but was able to purchase Four Loko, too.

“When the clerk saw she was buying Joose, he asked her ‘Are you trying to buy Four Loko?’ She told him yes, and he said, ‘We’re not supposed to sell it anymore, but I’ve got some in the back,’ and he sold some to her.

“The manufacturers and wholesalers have stopped, but the stores are still selling,” said Funderburk.

Which is why she introduced her bill.

“The bill brings clarity -- that you’re not allowed to sell these drinks and that you can get your liquor selling license revoked for two years,” she said.

Funderburk said she hopes the bill will pass the House within two weeks. Then, it would get sent to the Senate where another Kershaw County lawmaker’s presence should help. Funderburk said State Sen. Vincent Sheheen submitted a similar bill in the Senate.

Floyd said he hopes the bill will be a successful one because the manufacturers were responding to market forces responding to what young people were already doing.

“They’re marketing mostly to college kids who were already mixing alcohol with energy drinks when those came out,” Floyd said. “The concept is that if they’re manufactured, they must be safe.”

Funderburk agreed.

“Pre-packaged is so much easier,” she said, for college students and other young people wanting the effects of the drinks. “The kids call them ‘blackout in a can’ or ‘crack in a can.’ I’m hoping they’ll go away soon. If someone doesn’t realize they’re not supposed to sell them, they will now … but people are going to find a way to take advantage of others who are susceptible to such marketing.”

Corey said seven other states have already banned alcoholic energy drinks, most through regulatory agencies such as an alcohol beverage control, or ABC, commission. South Carolina no longer has such an avenue, hence Funderburk’s legislation.

Corey, Floyd and Funderburk said the legislation is needed now because there have been cases where young people have been hurt or killed. One disturbing case occurred last year in Aiken County.

“Seven or nine young people all suffered alcohol poisoning,” said Corey.

Funderburk said she received a letter from a woman in Lexington County who wrote about three men killed when a drunk driver ‘T-boned’ their car.

“The offending driver said he’d had ‘two beers,’” said Funderburk. “It turned out he’d really had two Four Lokos.”

That’s the equivalent of eight beers, she said.

“It’s taken people from use to abuse in one bottle,” said Floyd. “It’s not just a law enforcement concern, it’s a health concern.”

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