Four Loko: ‘Blackout in a Can’

In October 2010, a group of Central Washington University students gathered at a house with a large payload of alcoholic beverages, among them alcoholic energy drink Four Loko. Little did they know their actions would ignite a firestorm of publicity and state and college wide bans. 9 students were hospitalized with alcohol poisoning. With all fingers pointed squarely towards Four Loko, the drink was banned by the university. This was the first of many college-imposed bans on caffeinated alcoholic drinks.

Following the controversy, and the emergence of the health risks involved in mixing caffeine and alcohol, New York State banned Four Loko in December 2010. Since then a caffeine free Loko has hit the streets, reappearing in bodegas all over Manhattan in March 2011. While lawmakers and parents can breathe a little easier not everyone is happy with the new drink.

“I hated the new Four Loko,” said Rachel Romero, 21, a senior year student from Florida International University. “I considered walking back in and returning it.”

The drink comes in an array of flavors, from Fruit Punch to Cranberry Lemonade. Each can is packaged in a design resembling neon army fatigues. The liquid is almost as brightly colored as the can it comes in. And the taste? It felt as if a large Jolly Rancher were marinated in a tub of alcohol, and then compressed into a can. At first the synthetic sugary flavor will deceive you into thinking its harmless. Then comes the aftertaste. Bitter and, if had in large gulps, gag inducing. There is no hidden agenda behind Four Loko. The drink is not popular because of it’s taste, but because it is cheap and intoxicates drinkers fast.

“Part of the attraction was the cheap drunk,” explained an NYU junior, who declined to state his name. “It would get you wasted really fast and for two bucks fifty. I found the new one to be much weaker, it was just like having any old beer.”

The Food and Drug Administration began a review of caffeinated alcoholic drinks in November of 2009 after complaints from officials in several states such as New York and Washington. Following numerous cases, more than 20 at Ramapo College, NJ, alone, of alcohol poisoning on campuses across the country, the FDA issued a warning letter to Phusion Projects, the maker of Four Loko. Soon after New York’s State Liquor Authority reached an agreement with the state’s biggest beer distributors to stop delivering Four Loko beginning the 10th of December, 2010. In a statement released by the SLA, beer distributors “voluntarily agreed to stop selling malt beverages that contain caffeine and other stimulants.”

The use of caffeine in alcoholic substances is not FDA sanctioned. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, a substance added intentionally to food (such as caffeine in alcoholic beverages) is deemed “unsafe” and is unlawful unless its particular use has been approved by FDA regulation. The agreement states that this is because the “combined ingestion of caffeine and alcohol may lead to hazardous and life-threatening situations because caffeine counteracts some, but not all, of alcohol’s adverse effects.”

“What we must understand is that according to the law the food or beverage manufacturer has the primary responsibility for ensuring that a product is safe,” wrote Douglas Karas, an FDA spokesperson, via email. “They should only use approved food additives in their drinks. We asked for scientific data [to prove caffeine and alcohol together are safe] that could be generally accepted by experts – and they [Four Loko] did not meet our burden of proof.” When asked why the drink was allowed out into the market in the first place Mr. Karas explained, “The law does not require that a beverage manufacturer submit their products to the FDA before they market them.”

Numerous attempts were made to contact Phusion Projects. While the company did respond, officials declined to comment on the ban.

A study by the University of Florida backed the FDA’s claims that caffeinated alcoholic drinks were unsafe. The study found that students who mixed caffeine and alcohol think they are capable of drinking more total alcohol than those who drank non-caffeinated alcoholic drinks. Steven Kipnis, Medical Director at the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Servies, referred to his organization’s message to national universities and colleges. The two-page document explains that drinkers of caffeinated alcoholic drinks are more likely to binge drink. The same document states “binge drinking is responsible for approximately 40,000 deaths annually and is common among 18‐24 year‐olds.”

Regardless, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noticed rapid growth in the popularity of caffeinated alcoholic drinks. Two leading brands of CABs together experienced a 67-fold increase in sales; from 337,500 gallons in 2002 to 22,905,000 gallons in 2008.

The drinks were popular because the combination of caffeine and alcohol, however dangerous, was effective. Ever since Four Loko removed caffeine from their drinks bodega owners have noticed a steady decline in sales. The owner of Robin Raj Discount, on 14th street, said “it was selling lots, and then suddenly gone, finished, no one buys [Four Loko] anymore.” A similar reaction was drawn from the man behind the counter at Gourmet Deli, located on 23rd street who agreed that “no one is interested” in the new Loko.

Steve Shami, a student from Fordham University, casually flicked his fingers back and forth between two cans of Loko, eventually deciding on the Watermelon flavor. He laughed when told Four Loko was once popularly described by the media as ‘Blackout in a Can.’

“As a typical college student who likes to do a solid amount of drinking, that nickname seems more like a marketing ploy than anything that’s going to stop me from purchasing the product.”

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