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FTC forces Four Loko maker to redesign cans

Phusion Projects

Four Loko will be forced to retool their product packaging to make it clear that they contain the equivalent of four to five beers, not one to two as the labels previously claimed.

Often referred to as "blackout in a can," Four Loko is about to get a little more sane.

The FTC today announced that the makers of the up to 23.5-ounce cans of carbonated malt liquor beverage, swilled on college campus and in YouTube binge-drinking "challenge" videos, will be forced to retool their product packaging to make it clear that they contain the equivalent of four to five beers. The ruling would settle charges leveled by the FTC against the maker, Phusion Projects, "for falsely claiming that a 23.5-ounce can of Four Loko contains the alcohol equivalent of one or two regular 12-ounce beers, and that a consumer could drink one entire can safely on a single occasion," the agency said in a press release.

Phusion Projects will be forced to include an "alcohol facts panel" stating the alcohol by volume and number of servings. Phusion also will be required to redesign their cans containing more than 2.5 servings of alcohol so they can be resealed. That way consumers don't feel like they need to drink the whole thing in one sitting.

"Our labeling and advertising materials have always clearly conveyed exactly what is in the can in bold, capital letters," said Phusion Projects co-founder Jaisen Freeman, "i.e., – 23.5 OUNCES and 12 PERCENT ALCOHOL BY VOLUME (ABV)." 

“As a responsible alcohol beverage company, resolving the issues raised by the FTC through this agreement demonstrates Phusion’s continued commitment to being an industry leader and solid corporate citizen," Freeman said, "not just in sales, but also in transparency, cooperation and responsibility."

The Four Loko drink first grabbed the country's attention in late 2010 when nine Central Washington University students were hospitalized after consuming the drink at an off-campus party. Some of the students had mixed the fruity beverage with other drinks, including vodka. Afterward, several states rushed to ban the drink.

The government quickly took notice. After pressure from the FDA, Phusion removed the caffeine and energy drink ingredients that critics said could mask the beverage's alcoholic effects, bypassing the body's usual defense mechanisms against excessive alcohol consumption -- such as sluggish movements, falling down and passing out.

The FTC's decision came after an intense write-in campaign from citizens, the agency said. The FTC received over 250 public comments in response to its initial proposal and modified its ruling in response. Four Loko cans with more than two servings of alcohol will be forced to carry disclosures, while the initial proposal only called for the notice on cans with more than 2.5 servings. Instead of a notice comparing the amount of alcohol in Four Loko to their equivalent number of beers, the cans will carry "alcohol facts" panel instead. Public commenters feared that the equivalency would actually serve as an advertising come-on.

A number of the comments also asked the FTC to ban the drink entirely, but the FTC said it doesn't have that jurisdiction, nor could it force Phusion to limit the can size or alcohol content.