Look What Nine Drunken Idiots Can Accomplish!


Yesterday, spurred by nine Central Washington University students who got sick after drinking too much Four Loko, the Washington State Liquor Control Board voted to impose an emergency ban on "alcoholic energy drinks." Gov. Christine Gregoire, who joined Attorney General Rob McKenna in recommending the ban, explains her reasoning (PDF):

I was particularly concerned that these drinks tend to target young people. Reports of inexperienced or underage drinkers consuming them in reckless amounts have given us cause for concern….

Quite simply, these drinks are trouble. They contain up to 12 percent alcohol—more than twice the amount found in most beer. Added to that are large amounts of caffeine, which can mask the effects of alcohol. By taking these drinks off the shelves we are saying "no" to irresponsible drinking and taking steps to prevent incidents like the one that made these college students so ill.

Retailers have a week to clear the banned products from their shelves. The emergency ban lasts for 120 days, giving the liquor control board time to make it permanent. And after that, no college student in Washington state will ever drink irresponsibly again.

Unlike Michigan's ban on "alcohol energy drinks," which covers a list of specific products, the Washington ban applies to all beverages that "combine beer, strong beer, or malt liquor with caffeine, guarana, taurine, or other similar substances." On its face, it transforms malt beverages not ordinarily identified as "alcoholic energy drinks," such as coffee-infused stouts (or IPAs brewed with yerba maté), into contraband. At the same time, the definition excludes caffeinated liquor such as Pink vodka (the ban also does not affect caffeinated cocktails such as Red Bull and vodka or rum and Coke).

This week Oklahoma's Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission likewise announced a "moratorium" on "Alcohol Energy Drinks including Four Loko," which can no longer be imported into the state as of December 3 but can be sold for as long as inventories last after that. Although some news reports imply that Utah recently imposed a similar ban, the Deseret News says the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control never approved distribution of Four Loko or similar products. "While lawmakers, governors and attorneys general in several states are wringing their hands over what to do about new energy drinks that combine high levels of alcohol and caffeine," the paper brags, "the issue is nonexistent in Utah." With help from a few more drunken idiots, maybe the rest of the country can finally catch up with Utah.

But first let's get the story straight. ABC News says Four Loko is "cocaine in a can," while the Des Moines Register says it's "a blackout in a can." While both phrases are nicely hyperbolic (inasmuch as a can of Four Loko has less alcohol than a bottle of wine and as much caffeine as a cup of coffee), they seem inconsistent. Is it the staying up or the passing out that's the problem? The beauty of the official narrative, as told by the Washington State Liquor Control Board, is that we don't have to choose! The caffeine keeps you up long enough to ingest too much alcohol (which no one ever did before these products were introduced), at which point you pass out and die:

Research suggests that the combination of caffeine and alcohol create a so-called "wide-awake drunk" and may impair a person's ability to judge his or her level of intoxication….

Combining stimulants such as caffeine and depressants such as alcohol can place undue strain on the heart and central nervous system, dehydrate the body and hinder the body's ability to metabolize alcohol. The combination can also cause a depressed respiratory system and vomiting during sleep when the stimulants wear off.

Sharon Foster, who chairs the board, explains that it is "acting now to ensure these products do not contribute to a tragedy before the Food and Drug Administration or Legislature can act."