You've seen it a thousand times in movies and TV shows. Someone needs to sober up quickly and starts pounding black coffee, even though science tells us that doesn’t work. Caffeine will not counteract the effects of alcohol, it just makes the drunk more alert.
A decade ago, Red Bull launched the craze for so-called energy drinks, which deliver a big dose of caffeine. Pretty soon, these drinks were being combined with alcohol. No one should have been surprised, therefore, when drinks companies put two and two together and started to sell caffeinated alcoholic beverages.
Almost immediately, these products became easy targets for anti-alcohol crusaders. They dubbed them alcopops and claimed, among other things, that they were being marketed to children. About a year ago, yielding to pressure, the big beer companies dropped their caffeinated products and promised not to make new ones.
But caffeinated alcoholic beverages did not go away, the niche was simply filled by small manufacturers who don’t have big market shares to protect in the mainstream beverage arena. Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered those companies—about 30 of them—to prove their products are safe or risk having them banned.
While it may sound like the FDA is requiring the manufacturers to prove a negative, it’s not quite that bad. Go here to read the FDA’s press release and see what the standard of proof is. The key is something called GRAS—Generally Regarded as Safe—a term-of-art. Caffeine itself is GRAS but that is apparently not good enough.
This order only affects pre-packaged products that contain both alcohol and caffeine. Bars can still serve Jager Bombs (Jagermeister and Red Bull) or any of the other popular energy drink-and-alcohol combinations. Or, for that matter, Jack and Coke or Irish Coffee, two popular caffeinated alcoholic drinks of long standing.
So is this just a political stunt? The FDA in its announcement today cited letters from 18 Attorneys General and one city attorney expressing concerns about caffeinated alcoholic beverages. Illinois AG Lisa Madigan chimed in over the weekend.
It will be interesting to see how the manufacturers respond, especially since the small fry are on their own now without a mega brewer to show them the way. Stay tuned.