COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Controversial canned drinks that combine alcohol and caffeine could be banned in South Carolina, upsetting some college students.
A South Carolina House subcommittee voted unanimously Thursday to outlaw the jumbo-size alcoholic energy drinks, sold at many of the state's convenience stores.
Law enforcement officials who testified at Thursday's meeting said the drinks are attractive particularly to underage and young drinkers because they taste fruity like regular energy drinks, provide a quick buzz and give a boost of energy.
They also are inexpensive. A can costs under $3-- a bonus for broke college kids.
In November, the Food and Drug Administration issued warning letters to four manufacturers of the drinks, saying the caffeine was an "unsafe food additive" that masked the sense of intoxication and led to car wrecks, assaults and alcohol poisoning. A February study from the University of Florida showed drinkers of the alcoholic energy drinks are four times as likely to drive while intoxicated as those who drink only alcohol.
All four manufacturers agreed to pull the drinks from store shelves or reformulate the drinks, leaving out the caffeine and other stimulants.
But plenty of leftover cans remain on South Carolina store shelves and in back rooms.
Democratic state Rep. Laurie Funderburk, the bill's sponsor, brought a handful of the canned drinks into Thursday's meeting, purchased that morning at two Columbia convenience stores, to show they easily are available. One of the most popular brands among young drinkers is Four Loko, which goes by the nickname "blackout in a can."
Some University of South Carolina students, upset about the federal crackdown, are stockpiling the drinks and holding "RIP Four Loko" parties.
"There have been students who've gone to buy them in bulk in case they're outlawed," said Josh Dawsey, a USC student and editor-in-chief of the student newspaper The Daily Gamecock, which has been following the Four Loko trend, which hit campus full stride last spring. "Lots of students say the government doesn't have a right to get involved, that if they want to drink them, then they should be allowed."
Brian Dresdow, a USC senior, said he doesn't like the taste of the drinks so he doesn't drink them, but he doesn't want a ban.
"I'm a big proponent of an open marketplace," said Dresdow, 22. "Maybe we could regulate them more like what we do with cigarettes with the warning on the side of the label. But there's no need to ban them."
Law enforcement officials say the drinks are gaining popularity with the high school crowd.
The Lexington County Sheriff's Department has found the drinks at 75 percent to 80 percent of recent teen parties they've raided, said Steve Collins, a detective with the Sheriff's Department.
The drinks range from 9 percent to 12 percent alcohol by volume, compared with the typical 4 percent contained in a beer. They also are larger, up to 32 ounces in size, compared with a normal 12-ounce beer can.
"You can make the case this is a six-pack in one can," said Kristy Stoneburner of the Lexington-Richland Alcohol and Drug Addiction Commission, which works to prevent and treat drug abuse and supports a statewide ban.
The bill will be considered by the House's Judiciary Committee next week. To become state law, it must pass the House and Senate and get the signature of Gov. Nikki Haley.
The bill passed the subcommittee unanimously, winning support from Democrats and Republicans.
Repuublican state Rep. Thad Viers said he will co-sponsor the bill with Funderburk, adding he does not think the bill is an example of "the nanny state" that Republicans often complain overreaches into private lives.
"The first rule of government is protection of the public," Viers said.
"I'm not for outlawing beer or liquor. But this is a cocktail disaster. It's dangerous."
Under the bill, anyone who produced, imported or sold the drinks could be fined from $100 to $500 and imprisoned from 30 days to six months.
Retailers also could lose their license to sell alcohol for two years.
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