Loco Over Four Loko

How a fruity, brightly colored malt beverage drove politicians to madness in two short years

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.

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  • Suki||

    Good morning reason!
    The Cosmotarians and Liberaltarians shoue be saying Happy Mawlid al-Nabi like all good Muslim Brotherhood/CAIR supporters should.

  • Mr Whipple||

    On noes. They might be spreading herpes


  • Mr Whipple||

    Even worse, they might come over here and kill all of our Datsuns.


  • Abdul||

    dude, you were so much better when you did "Moonshadow" and "Wild World."

    What happened to you, Cat?

  • Yusuf Islam||

    The first cut was the deepest.

  • Daniel Pearl||

    You're telling me!

  • The Islamists ||

    "Resistance is futile!"

  • The French||


  • ||

    Too many rides on the Peace Train.

  • Fatwa Issuer||


  • Nutz||

    Instead of sitting around on the internet all day, posting pointless messages about "freedom" and abusing yourselves to pictures of loose women, why not do something productive and surrender your lives to Allah?

    I want it all!

  • Zeb||

    Please go away.

  • ||

    The first prohibition in America did not work. Perhaps if they tried a new one, where only of 40's are allowed to drink, it might work.

    These people who want to ban all these things probably want to achieve a Stepford wives type society where everyone is so happy and so polite, I mean who would not want to live in such a society, right ?

  • Rich||

    David Katz, director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, [says] “It’s hard to imagine any argument for such products. It’s also hard to imagine anyone objecting to a ban of such products.”

    Sheesh, David. You don't have much of an imagination, do you?

    What's harder to imagine is that there are
    35 such centers nationwide.

    Also, Prevention Research Center = PRC. Coincidence? /snark

  • Gregory Smith||

    That's what happens when you let the Progressive Health Nazis achieve influence. Why isn't America outraged when the First Lady pressures Wal-Mart to sell healthy foods? Where is the outrage against Hospitals that choose not to hire smokers or demand that smokers quit? Why isn't anyone saying anything about the Department of Transportation banning electronic cigarettes on the air without even holding a hearing?

    Yeah, everyone says "it won't happen to be" but before you know it the government will be banning something you like, and then what will you do?

    New Budget, New Tax Hikes: Obama does it again.

  • Sovereign Immunity||

    Are you related to Hercules Deviated Septosis, or whatever the hell his name is?

    You never see them in the same thread.

  • Bucky||

    "Hercules Deviated Septosis"
    now that's funny! that guy is out there.
    "Earth to Hercules, earth to Hercules, put down your Loco!"

  • Gregory Smith||

    I am not.

  • Gregory Smith||

    I am not.

  • ||

    Is that a double negative?

  • Gregory Smith||

    No, it's a double reply. It happens. Blame the computer.

  • Bucky||

    more turds of wisdom from the PRC...
    "Thus we are "Research Centers" not because we work in a laboratory, but because we measure effectiveness"
    measuring effectiveness = more legislation needed

  • Rich||

    “It’s a very bad combination having alcohol, plus caffeine, plus the brain of a young person."

    But if you add eye of newt and a pinch of kosher salt, and liquify it, it's pretty good.

  • Brian D||

    Clearly we must ban young people from having brains.

    Or maybe they've already beaten us to that...

  • ||

    Best tesimonial I've yet seen:

    “You just gotta drink it and drink it and drink it and drink it and not even worry about it because it’s awesome and you’re just partying and having fun and getting wild and drinking it.”

  • ||

    I like how it starts out as a piece of advice and just never goes anywhere at all.

  • David Katz||

    It goes to ... HELL!!

  • Jonathan||

    Great to see that alcohol and it's place in social order hasn't changed since 1736.

  • Number 2||

    "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."

    So I take it that those who drink nothing but straight tequila all night are safer than those who drink rum and cokes, and we should be encouraging young people to do the former?

    Just askin'...

  • cynical||

    'Once an intoxicant has been identified with a disfavored group—in this case, heedless, hedonistic “young adults”'

    Or, in the case of the "malt liquor" analogy that Frank Bruni wrote about... well, you know.

  • ||

    David Katz, director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, [says] “It’s hard to imagine any argument for such products. It’s also hard to imagine anyone objecting to a ban of such products.”

    Die in a fire, Dave.

  • Bucky||

    see? twisted logic wins the day again!
    i like what Old Mexican did on another thread...
    "It's hard to imagine any argument for such products.
    It's also hard to imagine anyone objecting to a ban of such products."
    Therefore; because it's hard to imagine, we should ban such products.
    butt-speak at its finest...

  • ||

    ... and slowly, with a caffeine IV drip so you can stay awake whilst the flames singe and sear your libtard, nanny-state infused flesh.

  • Young College Student||

    I guess it's back to dissolving crushed-up NoDoz in cans of Milwaukee's Best for me.

  • Orwell O'Well||

    That's good, Son.

    Back to basics.

  • IceTrey||

    Was the chick who crashed into the telephone pole driving a Toyota?

  • ||

    Was in a deli in lower Manhattan the other night where a Wall Street couple was paying an extra $50 for the LAST CASE of Four Loko.

  • ||

    So where the HELL are the ethanol-sotten, hyper-caffeinated OWS freedom-fighters on THIS???

  • ||

    Al this reminds me of those ridiculous, insane "Reefer Madness" propaganda films they used to make us watch years, and years, and YEARS ago!

  • Robert||

    Feb. 15, 2011: 4 Loco provides material for yet another Sullum on 4 Loco. Side effect: it generates another Colon too.

    Just teasing you guys. Not a bad summary, Jacob, and I like the cartoon too.

  • ||

    Sorry to be picky, but it is THE Ohio State University.

  • Dave||

    As a physician, I am not surprised the FDA's behavior in this case. The FDA routinely makes decisions without any basis in science. It bans drugs based on whim rather than rigorous scientific study and maintains marijuana prohibition despite the mountain of scientific data against such policy.

  • ||

    Hey, FDA: Get your head out of your collective PIRG-beholden arse and go after something demonstrably dangerous - Homeopathy, a scourge of pernicious snakeoil marketers if there ever was one.

  • partymarty||

    It's unbelievable how many educated people in our society; doctors, scientists, politicians, etc: could be so ignorant of the tremendous logical flaws in extrapolating so much from so little. Its common for people too mistakenly infer causality, but on this dumb of a scale?

    Two schools from the same rural region of one state. I mean common, anyone from Eastern Washington knows kids at Central and WSU have nothing to do but rage their faces off. WSU went through a serious riot phase once upon a time. Kids there get drunk and punch things.

    And I say this as somebody who has relatively recently partied with those dancing girls in underwear at WSU.

  • ||

    It's unbelievable how many educated people in our society; doctors, scientists, politicians, etc: could be so ignorant of the tremendous logical flaws

    Actually, it is perfectly believable.

    Politicians need things to ban and regulate to "protect us from ourselves."

    Scientists access billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars conducting "research" that tends to support the foregone conclusions of politicians. (Research that contradicts politicians' ends tends not to lead to additional funding).

    And physicians benefit from a licensing scheme that restricts entry into the market of health care providers -- increasing income -- while also creating additional new "health crises" that can be transformed into new "treatments" for "conditions" and further juice the coffers.

    It's a nice trifecta for personal financial enrichment at the expense of everyone else.

  • ||

    Dam, this means it's back to 5-Hour energy/Tahitian Treat/Vodka cocktails.

    Oh and I'll make sure I mix it in the Tahitian Treat bottle so I can throw out the other containers. Then the police can't blame the wreck on the vodka or the 5 hour energy, just the Tahitian Treat.

    Or say that the combo made me too drunk, too fast.

    Anyone remember a similar hullabaloo back in the 80's over wine coolers? That the attractive packaging made them tempting to children? Or how the two-liter bottles encouraged more drinking?

    Where is the outrage over other malt beverages that don't even taste like they have alcohol in them?

  • ||

    Damn, that sounds YUMMY!

    ... now, where are my car keys ...

  • The Meatriarchy||

    Sshh no one tell the FDA about Coffee Liqueurs

  • ||

    Great article, I'll have a vodka red bull to celebrate the ban!

  • ||

    I need an attorney that will sue four loko for me how dose it work do i have to pay money or will they represent me for free till we win? My son drank four loko and now is on trial for murder he has no memory of the night at all or having a gun. i need help i need an attorney to take my case i have no money and my sons only 14 years old being tried as an adult please someone help

  • قبلة الوداع||

    ThaNk U

  • دليل||


  • ||

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    we've got many new users here who recently got an Apple iPod touch or an www.apple.com/ipod/start.

  • ||

    i have bad chest pains when i dring 4 loko. and joose! i didnt know it had such high levels of cafeen! i have slight high blood pressure. i will never drink this again. i have chest pain right now and am buzzed and thought I should google this pain to be safe! then I read this. holy Sh*t! this is crazy. they should post this on the can you drink,right? good luck guys!!! God bless


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