Phusion Projects, the maker of beverage Four Loko, was served with a complaint in a California class action accusing the company of deceptively marketing the drink to look like non-alcoholic energy drinks, using vibrant colors and designs and fruit flavor names.
In addition, the suit claims the company failed to warn consumers of the particular dangers of drinking caffeinated beverages with high alcoholic content.
Often referred to as “blackout in a can,” Four Loko contains 6 to 12 percent alcohol by volume along with 135 mg of caffeine, according to the complaint, delivering the equivalents of one cup of coffee and four to five beers.
According to the complaint, the advertising, labeling, packaging, marketing, promotion, and selling of Four Loko violated California law because Phusion Projects used fruit flavor names for the drinks – like “Four Loko Fruit Punch,” the version purchased by the named plaintiff – vibrant colors and designs to package and label the beverage, and promoted the placement of its drinks near non-alcoholic energy drinks.
These acts also deceptively represented that Four Loko posed no greater risk to the health of consumers than other non-caffeinated alcoholic beverages, the suit alleges.
The suit seeks a corrective advertising campaign and monetary damages, including a refund for each class member who purchased Four Loko during the last four years.
Calling the suit meritless, the company said in a statement that it intends to defend itself “vigorously.”
“We have always disclosed the contents of all of our products and we did not make any misrepresentations about our products. As a responsible member of the alcoholic beverage industry we have gone above and beyond federal and state labeling requirements to make sure consumers know what our product is so that it can be consumed responsibly. We work alongside our distributors and the stores that sell our products to ensure they are marketed, sold and consumed safely and responsibly,” the company said.
To read the complaint in Richardson v. Phusion Projects, click here.
Why it matters: The class action suit is the latest blow to Phusion Projections, following an earlier lawsuit alleging that Four Loko caused the death of a college student, as well as federal and state actions. Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to the company, expressing concern about the alcohol/caffeine mix, and several states banned the drinks. In November, Phusion Projects agreed to remove caffeine and other stimulants from its products, and announced it would only sell non-caffeinated versions of the drink in the future.