Regulation

Too Much Fun

Caffeinated alcoholic drinks draw the feds' wrath for candor in advertising.

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There's something about the metallic pink shimmer of Watermelon Four Loko that immediately sends a scissoring pain to your temple. As for its bouquet, imagine a Jolly Rancher hard candy drowned in a vat of Olde English 800, with perhaps a note or two of off-brand ant poison thrown in for good measure. This may be the first alcoholic beverage that can give you a hangover before you've even taken a sip. 

Get past these shortcomings, though, and Watermelon Four Loko is a party in a can. At 12 percent alcohol by volume, one 23.5-ounce tall boy can legally intoxicate 223 pounds of humanity if consumed in an hour or less. For just $2.99, it also delivers unspecified amounts of caffeine, taurine, guarana, and FD&C Red #40. "I consistently blackout when we pregame with Four," enthuses one happy customer on the Facebook page of Phusion Projects, the company that produces Four Loko. "Thanks for reminding me what my vomit looks like," exclaims another.

In November 2009, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter to Phusion and 26 other brewers and distillers whose products are characterized by the "intentional addition of caffeine" (as opposed to alcoholic beverages that are flavored with coffee). Turns out the agency never explicitly approved the stimulant as an additive to any food product other than "cola-type beverages." Unless the manufacturers of Four Loko and similar products can prove that adding caffeine to alcohol is "generally recognized as safe," the FDA may force them to remove their products from the marketplace. (Energy drinks, on the other hand, are considered "dietary supplements" rather than "food," and are regulated under a different law.)

Critics charge that mixing caffeine with alcohol causes people to underestimate how intoxicated they are. In 2007 Mary Claire O'Brien, a physician at Wake Forest University, surveyed approximately 4,000 college students at 10 universities in North Carolina. She concluded that 24 percent of students who drink alcohol these days combine it with energy drinks, and these students are twice as likely to hurt themselves while drinking as students who stick to alcohol alone. "It's bad enough to be drunk, but to be an awake drunk? Now you're really in trouble," she says. "There's a reason why we pass out when we drink too much."

It's not just the presence of caffeine in beverages like Four Loko that has these products under fire. The FDA worries that caffeinated alcohol is increasingly popular among college students. The Marin Institute, a California-based temperance organization, believes that some brewers and distillers are deliberately trying to attract "young people" by making their beverages resemble non-alcoholic energy drinks. Richard Blumenthal, attorney general for the state of Connecticut, told the Chicago Tribune that the makers of Four Loko and a similar product called Joose are using misleading tactics to imply that it's possible to fill up on either product without becoming impaired. To these critics, caffeinated alcohol isn't just a potential health threat; it's a marketing threat as well.

Companies like Phusion Projects and United Beverages, which manufactures Joose, are injecting a substance even more forbidden than caffeine into the world of alcohol marketing: candor. They operate as if hedonistic 21-year-olds may in fact have an interest in alcohol, and not just for purposes of drinking responsibly. Phusion, which was founded in 2006 by three friends who met at Ohio State University, invites its customers to submit their "hottest Four party pictures" to the company's website. It sponsors beer pong tournaments. It posts uncensored testimonials like those cited above on its Facebook page.

Traditionally, the alcohol industry takes a far more sober, euphemistic approach to marketing. Housewives drunk on 100-proof laundry detergent cavort with more out-of-control abandon than the de facto teetotalers who populate our beer and liquor commercials, and brewers and distillers treat their products like medications that must be used only as directed. "Advertising and marketing materials should not depict situations where beer is being consumed rapidly, excessively, involuntarily, as part of a drinking game, or as a result of a dare," the Beer Institute's Advertising and Marketing Code states. The Distilled Spirits Council's Code of Responsible Practices sounds a similar note of caution. Beverage alcohol advertising, it advises, should not depict intoxicated people, actors under the age of 25, illegal activities, activities that require a high degree of alertness, indecent language, promiscuity, or Santa Claus. 

To fully appreciate how innocuously Big Alcohol markets its products, compare them to non-alcoholic energy drinks. When Red Bull started appearing in U.S. beverage coolers in the late 1990s, it contained 0.0 percent alcohol by volume. And yet it looked a hundred times edgier and more potent than any malt liquor on the market. The implicit message of its sleek, streamlined designer artillery shell of a can: Too much of this stuff would be more than you could handle.

Ever since, energy drinks have set the bar for provocative marketing, adopting comically illicit names like Blow and Fixx and upping the caffeine to levels that could resurrect a dead lab rat. While critics of caffeinated alcoholic beverages accuse distillers and brewers of trying to co-opt the energy drink market's teenage consumers, a more plausible contention is that they're merely trying to co-opt the energy drink market's rock 'n' roll cachet. Energy drink manufacturers are free to promote their products as a hip, sexy, cutting-edge way to enjoy a legal buzz—and what brewer or distiller wouldn't love to promote his beverage the same way instead of reciting half-hearted odes to moderation and responsibility?

Caffeinated alcohol naturally subverts Big Alcohol's preferred message of moderation: Even if upstarts in this category don't make explicit promises that they will help you party longer and stronger, what else is the caffeine for? Whether it's there to keep you from passing out so you can keep drinking, or because it combines with the alcohol to create a new kind of buzz, or because it somehow offsets the intoxicating effect of alcohol, it invariably magnifies alcohol's status as a hedonistic and/or mood-altering substance.

Ironically, though, it may be that the idea of caffeine is far more important to the popularity of brands Four Loko and Joose than the caffeine itself. On Four Loko's packaging and its website, for example, there are no claims that its caffeine and other additives will keep you awake, improve your alertness, minimize your drunkenness, or increase your energy. Nor do its fans seem to embrace these potential benefits of the product. Instead, they mostly talk about the drink's potency: the way it makes them black out or throw up or do crazy things.

To achieve these effects, no caffeine is necessary. Plain old alcohol will do the trick. But plain old alcohol is boring and sedate, the stuff thirtysomethings drink when they're sitting around in nightclubs wearing ties, behaving responsibly and clearly wishing they were doing something more fun, like attending a sales meeting. And Four Loko is for partying, dude! It says so on the Internet!

Alas, the FDA has no jurisdiction over consumers proclaiming their allegiance to fruit-flavored malt beverages on Facebook. It does have jurisdiction over food additives, though, and thus it may soon embark on the thankless, pointless task of eliminating pre-mixed caffeinated alcoholic beverages in a world awash in caffeine and alcohol. Even if it succeeds at that mission, it will find it harder to eliminate the notion that alcohol is a fun party drug that can be marketed without apology to young adults on the Internet. That idea has been proven by the success of products like Four Loko and Joose, and even if the FDA takes them down, other savvy marketers, sans caffeine, will arise to take their place. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.

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  1. Good Morning reason!

    Hi Undermensch!

  2. Good morning Suki.

    1. Gonna quit being a crybaby now that you know how to time travel on H&R?

      1. Never crying. Just jealous until now.

  3. Good Morning Suki!

  4. Goodnight, Cornholio.

  5. I consistently blackout when we pregame with Four,” enthuses one happy customer on the Facebook page of Phusion Projects, the company that produces Four Loko. “Thanks for reminding me what my vomit looks like,” exclaims another.

    I’m sure when these Rhodes Scholars graduate and try to find a job they will see the wisdom of posting such public testimonials of the wonders of modern chemistry.

    Beverage alcohol advertising, it advises, should not depict intoxicated people, actors under the age of 25, illegal activities, activities that require a high degree of alertness, indecent language, promiscuity, or Santa Claus.

    Clearly, DSCCRP hasn’t been to your average college campus lately. Red Bull is marketed as a “pick me up” but they don’t advertise on TV the miracles of Jager Blasters and Orange Douches.

    Richard Blumenthal, attorney general for the state of Connecticut, told the Chicago Tribune that the makers of Four Loko and a similar product called Joose are using misleading tactics to imply that it’s possible to fill up on either product without becoming impaired.

    I see Mr. Blumenthal is a racist and self-hating Joo with a bias against dyslexics.

    And Four Loko is for partying, dude! It says so on the Internet!

    Duh! Really? Again Teh Kollege Kids really don’t need the internets to them this. Quaite frankly, if they do, then thinning of the herd may not be a bad idea.

    1. “…tell them…”

    2. the wisdom of posting such public testimonials

      The narcissism is strong with this one.

  6. This is about as pointless as the drug war in general. So they ban these drinks, and what, people won’t just go back to adding alcohol to an energy drink? That’s were the whole idea came from to start with.

  7. In 19th century Britain, drops of opium were often added to beer. Many pubs in the Fenlands did this as a matter of course – without asking – giving the traveling customer a surprise.

    1. Is that what Starbucks does to cause my addiction to them?

      1. No. the lines would be much longer…

    2. Excellent anecdote. Goes with the current high levels of injecting drug users in the region.

      1. IIRC, there is a native poppy that grows in the region. That, combined with the weather, made for a population that were heavy users.

        For further reading.

  8. Seems they could quietly remove the caffein and nobody would notice.

  9. Umm. Rum and Coke, anyone?

    1. Thanks billy, I will have one.

  10. Instead of Loko or Joose I’ll just do a Jolt and bourbon. What’s the difference?

    1. Depends on how refined your bourbon palatte is.

  11. “I consistently blackout when we pregame with Four,” enthuses one happy customer on the Facebook page of Phusion Projects, the company that produces Four Loko.

    When the hell did pregame become a verb?

    To fully appreciate how innocuously Big Alcohol markets its products

    God no, don’t use the term “Big Alcohol”. You’re playing right into the hands of the bansturbators in Big Government.

    It’s Big Government versus Small Alcohol.

    Also, the article fails to discuss how the Nanny State Perverts and their campaign to turn alcohol into a bogeyman of which we should all be terrified bears a good deal of responsibility for all this. By making alcohol a forbidden fruit, and by prohibiting it to a class of adults (those who are at least 18, but not yet 21), they’ve made it more chic for them, and more dangerous by not giving them any way to learn how to enjoy alcohol responsibly and legally.

    1. That was my first thought as well. During the latest round of “taxing smokers for their own good” the current president had much to say about not letting Big Tobacco harm our children. Which of course explains why the tobacco from the small farm that I roll myself also increased in price!

      I’m starting to seriously hate these people.

  12. sorry Blow and Fixx and all those speedball up and down drinks…nothing beats a good bottle of Cristal with a few thick lines of high quality, uncut Colombian cocaine to get the party rollin’!!! Forget all that caffienated alcohol BS!!! There are more expensive and more dangerous ways to destroy your body and get you hooked, loose your money and penis size (if you’re a man), and get absolutely nothing done!

    I know that must’ve sounded crazy…but that’s how I did it years ago…if I learned the hard way of what NOT to do, then today’s early 20 fuckups have the right to do the ‘hard way’ THEIR WAY! Man, that stuff that’s being talked about in this review can’t taste that good!

  13. Sounds like the makers of Phusion and Joose need to make a political contribution and quick!

  14. So I should shelve my plans for nicotine beer then?

    1. AND Bob Marley THC Ale.

    2. What about tequacco?

  15. Hell, if caffeine and alcohol kills off these frat bros, I am OK with that.

    1. true that brotha!!!

      1. Nope, sorry wimps… might knock off a few, but just makes the rest of the jocks stronger.

        Better keep saving that lunch money for wedgie insurance.

  16. “24 percent of students who drink alcohol these days combine it with energy drinks, and these students are twice as likely to hurt themselves while drinking as students who stick to alcohol alone.”

    Its because these people who mix energy drinks and alcohol also tend to be huge douche bags, and are twice as likely to do retarded shit than normal people who drink alcohol. Hell, they are twice as likely to be retarded anyway.

    1. “Its because these people who mix energy drinks and alcohol also tend to be huge douche bags, and are twice as likely to do retarded shit”

      so true…Maybe Jersey Shore can get some public funding to help prove this theory.

  17. “the makers of Four Loko and a similar product called Joose are using misleading tactics to imply that it’s possible to fill up on either product without becoming impaired.”

    Where is all this marketing to young people I keep hearing about? How come I never see any of it?

  18. God dammit. I shouldn’t eat while I’m typing.

  19. I’m sure requiring that frat boys mix vodka and Red Bull themselves will keep them on the straight and narrow.

  20. “But plain old alcohol is boring and sedate, the stuff thirtysomethings drink when they’re sitting around in nightclubs wearing ties, behaving responsibly and clearly wishing they were doing something more fun, like attending a sales meeting.”

    The fun REALLY starts when you drink your alcohol AT the sales meeting while wearing your tie.

  21. Coffee and booze do not mix well

  22. Shit, I remember when chocolate in your peanutbutter was a big deal…
    Clearly I’ve lived too long.

  23. Meanwhile in the UK angostura bitters (abv 44.7%)is not classified as an alcoholic beverage due to its bitter flavor.

    In the US brewers yeast is easy to acquire at any age, as is bakers yeast for those who care more about the alcohol and less about the flavor. I suspect this is the case for much of the world.

    But heaven forbid I should be able to save a few seconds of my own time (time which thanks to the health care farce may be finite) through buying a pre-mixed jack and coke. (not that I normally stoop to such a mix, but you get the point)

  24. I think all these alcohol makes owe a debt of gratitude to Drew Carey

    Buzz Beer….stay up and get drunk all over again

    1. Drew Carey?…naw…not really! They owe it to Belgian or whatever religious monks who brewed the stuff in the first place, and to Woody Harrelson and the crew at Cheers for serving and drinking it up for us on T.V…Drew is cool, but he is a tad new on the scene…he would’ve fit right in with the Cheers crew!

  25. All. Opine:
    1. The chemical analysis of the article would indeed make one vomit.
    2. However, the FDA, USDA, FCC, and other Czar led agencies, see a tent, that the OBNA Camel can enter. Given that the need is there, IE Decent ads, accurate ads and even more, adequate food safety controls, one can see the need for common sense rules.
    3. However, common sense rules are not the Czar led game plan. Watch for these agencies to burrow further and further into the chemical manufacturing process, the companies making the product and the Human Effect NGO supporting “Needed” change to the consumer lifestyle.
    bt
    SunTzu says “Watch your flanks as the enemy tears up the middle” AKA Czar led agencies nibbling for control, effects and affects at the edges while the NGOS decry the Need for Change up the middle.
    Old Saul Alynski tactics, broadcast loud and clear while undermining the foundations.
    bt
    However, knowledge is power.
    We Will Prevail
    Semper Fi
    end

  26. You people are getting all worked up over nothing. This media beat-up isn’t going to lead them to ban these products, when governments know that people can easily buy the separate ingredients and mix them for themselves. The real plan is to do what has happened here in Australia: have a big scare campaign to rally support for TAXING THE HELL OUT OF THEM! Then everybody wins (except those people who drink the stuff). More revenue for the government while creating the illusion they’re doing something about “the problem”. It’s standard practice for most “problems” here and I’m sure it’ll become the same for you.

  27. I’ve been drinking caffenated alcohil drinks for years. It’s called bourbon & coke. Cheers.

  28. Ive been downing alcoholic caffenated drinks for what seems like a lifetime. Jack Daniels and Coke.

  29. Matt didn’t even show up in person? No chance he’s going to get hit in the face with a chair. What a gyp.

  30. Get past these shortcomings, though, and Watermelon Four Loko is a party in a can. At 12 percent alcohol by volume, one 23.5-ounce tall boy can

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