In a column at the end of October, New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni looked down his nose at Four Loko, a fruity, bubbly, brightly colored malt beverage with a lower alcohol content than Chardonnay and less caffeine per ounce than Red Bull. “It’s a malt liquor in confectionery drag,” Bruni wrote, “not only raising questions about the marketing strategy behind it but also serving as the clearest possible reminder that many drinkers aren’t seeking any particular culinary or aesthetic enjoyment. They’re taking a drug. The more festively it’s dressed and the more vacuously it goes down, the better.”
Less than two weeks after Bruni panned Four Loko and its déclassé drinkers, he wrote admiringly of the “ambition and thought” reflected in hoity-toity coffee cocktails offered by the Randolph at Broome, a boutique bar in downtown Manhattan. He conceded that “there is a long if not entirely glorious history of caffeine and alcohol joining forces, of whiskey or liqueurs poured into after-dinner coffee by adults looking for the same sort of effect that Four Loko fans seek: an extension of the night without a surrender of the buzz.”
Like Bruni’s distaste for Four Loko, the moral panic that led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the beverage and others like it in November, just two years after it was introduced, cannot be explained in pharmacological terms. As Bruni admitted and as the drink’s Chicago-based manufacturer, Phusion Projects, kept pointing out to no avail, there is nothing new about mixing alcohol with caffeine. What made this particular formulation intolerable—indeed “adulterated,” according to the FDA—was not its chemical composition but its class connotations: the wild and crazy name, the garish packaging, the low cost, the eight color-coded flavors, and the drink’s popularity among young partiers who see “blackout in a can” as a recommendation. Those attributes made Four Loko offensive to the guardians of public health and morals in a way that Irish coffee, rum and cola, and even Red Bull and vodka never were.
The FDA itself conceded that the combination of alcohol and caffeine, a feature of many drinks that remain legal, was not the real issue. Rather, the agency complained that “the marketing of the caffeinated versions of this class of alcoholic beverage appears to be specifically directed to young adults,” who are “especially vulnerable” to “combined ingestion of caffeine and alcohol.”
Because Four Loko was presumed to be unacceptably hazardous, the FDA did not feel a need to present much in the way of scientific evidence. A grand total of two studies have found that college students who drink alcoholic beverages containing caffeine (typically bar- or home-mixed cocktails unaffected by the FDA’s ban) tend to drink more and are more prone to risky behavior than college students who drink alcohol by itself. Neither study clarified whether the differences were due to the psychoactive effects of caffeine or to the predispositions of hearty partiers attracted to drinks they believe will help keep them going all night. But that distinction did not matter to panic-promoting politicians and their publicists in the press, who breathlessly advertised Four Loko while marveling at its rising popularity.
This dual function of publicity about an officially condemned intoxicant is familiar to anyone who has witnessed or read about previous scare campaigns against stigmatized substances, ranging from absinthe to Salvia divinorum. So is the evidentiary standard employed by Four Loko alarmists: If something bad happens and Four Loko is anywhere in the vicinity, blame Four Loko.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration counted 13,800 alcohol-related fatalities in 2008. It did not place crashes involving Four Loko drinkers in a special category. But news organizations around the country, primed to perceive the drink as unusually dangerous, routinely did. Three days before the FDA declared Four Loko illegal, a 14-year-old stole his parents’ SUV and crashed it into a guardrail on Interstate 35 in Denton, Texas. His girlfriend, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the car and killed. Police, who said they found a 12-pack of beer and five cans of Four Loko in the SUV, charged the boy with intoxication manslaughter. Here is how the local Fox station headlined its story: “ ‘Four Loko’ Found in Deadly Teen Crash.”
Likewise, college students were getting sick after drinking too much long before Four Loko was introduced in August 2008. According to the federal government’s Drug Abuse Warning Network, more than 100,000 18-to-20-year-olds make alcohol-related visits to American emergency rooms every year. Yet 15 students at two colleges who were treated for alcohol poisoning after consuming excessive amounts of Four Loko were repeatedly held up as examples of the drink’s unique dangers.
If all alcoholic beverages had to satisfy the reckless college student test, all of them would be banned. In a sense, then, we should be grateful for the government’s inconsistency. With Four Loko, as with other taboo tipples (see “Demonized Drinks,” page 52) and illegal drugs, there is little logic to the process by which the scapegoat is selected, but there are noticeable patterns. Once an intoxicant has been identified with a disfavored group—in this case, heedless, hedonistic “young adults”—everything about it is viewed in that light. Soon the wildest charges seem plausible: Four Loko is “a recipe for disaster,” “a death wish disguised as an energy drink,” a “witch’s brew” that drives you mad, makes you shoot yourself in the head, and compels you to steal vehicles and crash them into things.
The timeline that follows shows how quickly a legal product can be transformed into contraband once it becomes the target of such over-the-top opprobrium. Although it’s too late for Four Loko, lessons gleaned from the story of its demise could help prevent the next panicky prohibition by scaremongers who criminalize first and ask questions later.
June 2008: Anheuser-Busch, under pressure from 11 attorneys general who are investigating the brewing giant for selling the caffeinated malt beverages Tilt and Bud Extra, agrees to decaffeinate the drinks. “Drinking is not a sport, a race, or an endurance test,” says New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who will later be elected governor. “Adding alcohol to energy drinks sends exactly the wrong message about responsible drinking, most especially to young people.”
August 2008: Phusion Projects, a Chicago company founded in 2005 by three recent graduates of Ohio State University, introduces Four Loko, which has an alcohol content of up to 12 percent (depending on state regulations); comes in brightly colored, 23.5-ounce cans; contains the familiar energy-drink ingredients caffeine, guarana, and taurine; and is eventually available in eight fruity, neon-hued varieties.
September 2008: The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a pro-regulation group that is proud of being known as “the food police,” sues MillerCoors Brewing Company over its malt beverage Sparks, arguing that the caffeine and guarana in the drink are additives that have not been approved by the FDA. “Mix alcohol and stimulants with a young person’s sense of invincibility,” says CSPI’s George Hacker, “and you have a recipe for disaster. Sparks is a drink designed to mask feelings of drunkenness and to encourage people to keep drinking past the point at which they otherwise would have stopped. The end result is more drunk driving, more injuries, and more sexual assaults.”
December 2008: In a deal with 13 attorneys general and the city of San Francisco, Miller-Coors agrees to reformulate Sparks, removing the caffeine, guarana, taurine, and ginseng. Cuomo says caffeinated alcoholic beverages are “fundamentally dangerous and put drinkers of all ages at risk.”
July 2009: The Wall Street Journal reports that Cuomo, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (now a U.S. senator), California Attorney General Jerry Brown (now governor), and their counterparts in several other states are investigating Four Loko and Joose, a close competitor. The National Association of Convenience Stores says the two brands are growing fast now that Tilt and Sparks have left the caffeinated malt beverage market.