"[Insert Word Here] in a Can"

May 3, 2011

A few months ago, a drink called Four Loko caught the attention of students, colleges, news media and politicians across the country. Its dangerous mix of lots of caffeine and lots of alcohol made it a target of the Food and Drug Administration, which eventually outlawed the beverage – though it has since returned, sans the caffeine.

Dubbed “blackout in a can,” Four Loko and the craze it spawned ultimately fell off the college radar.

Cue “binge in a can.”

That’s what some state attorneys general are calling Blast by Colt 45, a new drink resembling the current form of Four Loko: it’s got the alcoholic content of five beers packed into one 23.5-ounce can – more than enough to constitute binge drinking when consumed within two hours – and Blast’s fruity flavors and low cost (under $3 per can) will likely mean speedier consumption. (Blast does have a marketing one-up on Four Loko: it’s endorsed by the rapper Snoop Dogg.)

While Blast has caught the attention of some alcohol prevention coordinators, it does not yet appear to be problematic on campuses.

Some states are trying to make sure it stays that way. After only a month on the market, Blast has drawn the ire of more than a dozen state attorneys general who are lobbying Pabst Brewing Company, which produces the drink, to “significantly reduce” its alcohol content and keep its marketing in check. In a letter from the Maryland attorney general's office, 18 signatories – among them representatives of California, Arizona, Illinois and Guam – laid out their concerns. “We believe the manufacture and marketing of this flavored ‘binge in a can’ poses a grave public safety threat and is irresponsible,” the attorneys wrote. “We also are concerned that the target market for all size containers of Blast, which your company describes as ages 21-29, will also include persons under the legal drinking age, in violation of the law.”

Pabst did not respond to a request for comment.

In October, Ramapo College President Peter Mercer was among the first to publicize the dangers of Four Loko when he banned it following the hospitalization of 23 students at the New Jersey institution. About two weeks after that, the beverage was blamed for the hospitalization of nine Central Washington University students. What followed resembles the course that Blast may soon face: several states banned the drink, and the FDA ultimately followed suit.

Glen L. Sherman, co-chair of the Alcohol and Other Drug Knowledge Community for NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said he hasn't heard from any colleges encountering the drink in New Jersey, where he works as associate vice president and dean of student development at William Paterson University. But he said the best way to handle yet another Four Loko is to not target efforts at a specific drink. “Unfortunately, the manufacturers and distributors seem intent on finding a way to produce something that stays within the bounds of the existing law or laws but is detrimental to underage drinkers,” Sherman said in an e-mail. “Rather than attempting to understand and abide by the spirit of the laws which try to limit access by underage drinkers to potentially dangerous products, they seem to invest their energy in finding a way around them. The best approach colleges and universities can take is to write their policies with broad categories of substances and behaviors in mind rather than addressing a particular product.”

Even for colleges that do take that approach, such as Monmouth University in New Jersey, the arrival of a new product is exhausting, said Mary Anne Nagy, chair of the NASPA committee. A member of Monmouth’s alcohol and other drug staff mentioned Blast at a staff meeting a few weeks ago, and even though the drink hasn’t been seen on campus, it raised a red flag.

And colleges likely have the same response each time. “There’s probably a huge sigh of exasperation, like, ‘Wow.’ We just got through Four Loko and we felt good about raising that to the consciousness level we did,” Nagy said. “The need always seems to be there to be constantly vigilant.”

To that end, on Monday, 14 institutions including Dartmouth College and Boston, Ohio, Cornell and Wesleyan Universities announced an anti-binge-drinking initiative called the Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking. “Close to 40 percent of college students in the United States engage in binge drinking, and that number has remained virtually unchanged for decades,” Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim said in a press release. “By collaborating on this issue, comparing our experiences, and learning from each other’s best practices, we believe we are much more likely to make meaningful and lasting progress than if each school attempts to tackle this critical issue on its own.”

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