World and Nation

American colleges sound warning on ‘Four Loko’ drink

Packing several drinks’ worth of alcohol and a jolt of caffeine into a single container, Four Loko is a potent and increasingly popular brew, known on college campuses as “blackout in a can.’’

Following high-profile cases in which college students in Washington and New Jersey were hospitalized after drinking the malt beverage at parties, administrators at schools across the region, including Harvard, Northeastern, and Boston College, are warning that Four Loko’s heady combination of alcohol and caffeine poses serious risks.

“It is a dangerous concoction,’’ Thomas Nary, director of university health services at Boston College, wrote in a letter to students last week that urged them to abstain.

Four Loko is the latest in a wave of alcoholic energy drinks that have alarmed campus officials, who say the blend of sweet taste and high alcohol content encourages binge drinking and causes some students to become dangerously drunk without realizing it.

The company that manufactures Four Loko, Phusion Projects, says its drink is safe, with an alcohol content on par with some premium beers and about as much caffeine as a large cup of coffee. It says there is nothing inherently dangerous in the combination of alcohol and caffeine, pointing to drinks like Irish coffee and rum and cola that have been consumed for years.

But some health officials, particularly at college campuses, say the drink, with its bright-colored 23-ounce cans, fruit flavors, and low cost, appears to be aimed at a young audience and that its alcoholic potency and growing prominence over the past two years make it especially pernicious.

Mixing alcohol and caffeine can be dangerous, the officials said, because caffeine masks the alcohol’s effects, giving drinkers a false sense of sobriety.

“It can cause you to become a ‘wide-awake drunk,’’’ said Madeleine Estabrook, executive director of university health and counseling services at Northeastern University. “You mistakenly conclude you can perform potentially dangerous tasks, like driving or crossing a busy road.’’

With complaints nationwide that the drink is packaged to appeal to underage drinkers, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office said Monday that it was looking into whether the company’s marketing is improper.

The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing whether the beverages are safe, telling some 30 manufacturers of caffeinated alcohol beverages last November that the increasing popularity of the drinks “necessitates that we look seriously at the scientific evidence as soon as possible.’’

The FDA has not approved caffeine use for any level in alcoholic beverages and has concerns about their safety, a spokesman for the agency said Monday. Under public pressure, large brewers such as Anheuser-Busch and Miller discontinued caffeinated alcoholic beverages, the FDA said.