Yesterday, while picking up some newly forbidden Four Loko at a Dallas liquor store, I asked the clerk at the counter whether there had been a run on the stuff in light of the FDA's determination that it is "adulterated" and therefore illegal. She said yes, adding that she heard the drink was banned because of a recent local incident in which a drunken 14-year-old went on a joy ride in his parents' SUV with two friends and slammed into a guard rail, killing one of his passengers. That understanding of the motivation for the Four Loko ban was not precisely accurate, since the FDA's decision was more or less determined a year ago. But the clerk was right about the general style of reasoning driving the moral panic over this drink category: If something bad happens and Four Loko is anywhere in the vicinity, blame Four Loko. Here is the headline that the Dallas Fox station put on its initial story about the car accident that the clerk mentioned, which involved a 14-year-old who was drinking beer as well as the notorious alcoholic energy drink and who broke the law in several different ways (by stealing a car, by driving without a license, by drinking, by driving while intoxicated, etc.): "'Four Loko' Found in Deadly Teen Crash."
At a poker game last night, I cracked open a couple of Four Loko cans and distributed samples. We all agreed it was one of the vilest drinks we had ever consumed. It was not as syrupy as I expected and in fact had a bitter edge that is characteristic of energy drinks containing caffeine and taurine. The one in the purple can tasted like a grape soda with crushed aspirin mixed into it. Even a test subject who has a fondness for Mike's Hard Lemonade could not abide it (or the cranberry-lemonade variety, which had the same unpleasant aftertaste). In terms of psychoactive effects, it was indistinguishable from wine; I did not notice any extra kick from the caffeine. (One can has about as much caffeine as a cup of coffee.) I suspect that the reformulated version of Four Loko, which will not have caffeine, guarana, or taurine, will taste better and will therefore be, if anything, more appealing both to underage drinkers and to the "young adults" that the FDA is so worried about. Hence the moral panic will continue, with Four Loko demonized as an especially potent "alcopop" (having a 12 percent alcohol content, compared to 5 percent for Mike's Hard Lemonade) instead of an energizing intoxicant that makes you crazy, drives you to suicide, or keeps you awake enough long enough to drink yourself to death.