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FDA questions caffeine in alcoholic beverages

November 14, 2009 |  1:46 pm

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday took the first step toward banning alcoholic beverages that contain caffeine, sending letters to nearly 30 manufacturers of such products giving them a month to prove that the products are safe.

The drinks have been a subject of recent controversy. The attorneys general of California and 17 other states have been pressing the FDA to take action against the products because they pose an unusual risk to young people. The caffeine in the drinks tends to mask the impairment produced by alcohol, leading to "increased risk-taking and other serious alcohol-related problems such as traffic accidents, violence, sexual assault and suicide," they wrote in a letter to FDA.

Lawsuits by the states have led the two largest manufacturers to alter the composition of their products or stop selling them. Last year, Anheuser-Busch removed caffeine and some other additives from the flavored malt beverages Tilt and Bud Extra. MillerCoors agreed to stop selling its major product, Sparks.

Under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, a substance added intentionally to food (such as caffeine in alcoholic beverages) is deemed "unsafe" and is unlawful unless that particular use has been approved by the FDA or the substance is generally recognized as safe. Caffeine has not been approved for use in alcoholic beverages and the FDA "is not aware of any basis that manufacturers have to conclude that the use of caffeine is generally recognized as safe," Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of food and drugs, said in a news conference.

The caffeinated beverages, which are similar to their non-alcoholic counterparts, account for about 1% of the beer market, with annual sales of about $1 billion, according to Eric Shepard of the trade publication Beer Marketer's Insights.

Among the companies receiving the FDA letter were Joose Beverage of Los Angeles, Mix Master Beverage Co. of Stateline, Nev., and Blank Beverages Co. of San Diego.

More information is available at the FDA website.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II