Yesterday New York joined the Four Loko Four, the states (Michigan, Oklahoma, Washington, and Utah) that have banned caffeinated malt beverages. Sort of. Under pressure from Gov. David Paterson and the New York State Liquor Authority, Four Loko's Chicago-based manufacturer, Phusion Products, has "agreed" to stop shipping the drink to New York. Meanwhile, the New York State Beer Wholesalers Association is urging its members to stop distributing Four Loko and similar products. "We have an obligation to keep products that are potentially hazardous off the shelves," said Dennis Rosen, the liquor authority's chairman, "and there is simply not enough research to show that these products are safe."
Every alcoholic beverage is "potentially hazardous," and none will ever be proven "safe," if by that Rosen means risk-free. But there's no question that a can of Four Loko, which has less alcohol than a bottle of wine and about as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, can be consumed without serious adverse effects. If every alcoholic beverage had to pass the reckless college student test, they all would be banned.
Baltimore Sun writer Erik Maza notes that Four Loko, like LSD, has the power to cause insanity in people who have never consumed it. People like Mike Hellgren of the Baltimore CBS affiliate WJZ, who reports that "a Maryland woman is dead after the drink made her lose her mind." According to "friends and family," that happened right before the woman, 21-year-old Courtney Spurry, slammed her Ford pickup truck into a telephone pole. A friend who was drinking with her before the crash reports:
She changed that night. She was not the same person. She could not remember people's names. She passed out within 30 minutes of having the alcoholic beverage.
That suspiciously clinical account evidently was enough to justify WJZ's headline: "Alcoholic Energy Drink Made Md. Woman 'Lose Mind'" (even though neither the friend nor anyone else quoted in the story actually used those words). Note that after one 23.5-ounce can of Four Loko (which is about as strong as wine), a 100-pound woman such as Spurry would have had a blood alcohol content of around 0.2 percent, which is good and drunk but a state of consciousness that drinkers across America commonly experience without losing their minds (even if they add a cup of coffee to the mix).
The other story cited by Maza comes from the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, which claims a 43-year-old man "spiraled into a hallucinogenic frenzy" after drinking one and a half cans of Four Loko:
"It was like he was stuck inside a horror movie and he couldn't get out and I couldn't get him out," said Mary Alice Brancato, recounting a scary incident involving her husband last summer....
Brancato says after drinking just one and a half cans of the caffeinated alcohol drink, the suburban dad began having nightmarish delusions.
"In his mind, he had harmed all of our kids and he had to kill me and kill himself so that we could go to heaven to take care of them."
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
"Next think I know, he was having convulsions making gurgling sounds as if someone were choking him and then he stopped breathing."
According to this account, the guy consumed the equivalent of seven five-ounce glasses of wine, plus a cup and a half of coffee. Assuming he weighs 170 pounds and he drank it all at once, his BAC would have been around 0.15 percent. It seems fair to say that his reaction was highly idiosyncratic.
The weird thing is that such accounts, which make Four Loko more attractice to precisely the demographic that regulators supposedly are trying to protect, try to make alcohol seem scarier by likening it to LSD and psilocybin. Yet by most measures, those drugs are substantially safer than alcohol.