Leave Four Loko Alone

Richard Rys, You Magnificently Ignorant Slut. By Jeff Billman

So earlier today, Philly Mag writer Richard Rys—see disclosure below—penned an anti-Four Loko screed wherein he decided that the caffeinated malt-liquor-esque beverage that is, as these things tend to be, apparently the latest fad for the kids and source of ire for their parents, should be banned because, well, he doesn’t think much of it:

I also hate to sound like some oldhead bitching and moaning about the kids today. But when the FDA announced it was banning these drinks on Wednesday, I couldn’t argue with the crackdown. What happened to change my mind? I actually tried the stuff.

The evening ended with a late-night trip to Little Pete’s for a cheeseburger deluxe, and I finally felt like I was running on empty. What happened the morning after was a complete shock — I woke up with no hangover whatsoever. Maybe that greasy meal helped matters, and thanks to the caffeine, I was wide awake at 8:30 a.m. Still, I expected to feel that old familiar jackhammer in my head, at least. By mid-afternoon, I needed a nap that was more like a coma than a snooze. But otherwise, I emerged miraculously unscathed from my tangle with Four Loko.

Of course, I’m not the target audience, most of whom probably wouldn’t be so lucky after a Loko-fueled night. If you traveled back in time and gave me and my 21-year-old pals a few alcoholic energy drinks, someone would have ended up in a hospital, in jail, on the local news, or perhaps all three. Now that Four Loko is synonymous with danger, that’s essentially a challenge for kids to do the dumb things that kids do, like beer-bong two Lokos at once, as one college-age guy demonstrates in a YouTube video. It’s hard to watch that clip, knowing how potent just one can is. So kids, keep doing your keg stands and your Jagerbombs and your shotguns and trust me. One day, when you’re old, you’ll be thankful that Four Loko isn’t on the menu anymore.

Unlike Richard, I’ve not experimented with Four Loko, nor do I have any intention of doing so, regardless of its legal status—I prefer a 12-year-old Macallan or a DFH World Wide Stout or the Iron Hill Winter Wheat Wine I absolutely did not just drink in the office to whatever swill frat boys play pong with these days—but that’s beside the point. The legality of something can’t be based upon my own predilections, but upon what the data tell us. And frankly, the data say that if you’re going to ban Four Loko, Red Bull and vodka—the drink of choice for the hard-partying set in my collegiate years—should be next, or actually, maybe first:

It’s a rational medical argument: It is stupid and unhealthy to mix stimulants and depressants. What isn’t rational is that nobody seemed to mind booze mixed with caffeine when it was rich people who were drinking it.

While there are no statistics to quantify its popularity, anyone who has been in a bar in the past decade knows full well that Red Bull and vodka, mixed in a glass together, is one of the most guzzled cocktails of the 21st century. Pubs and clubs around the world sell it, and its simplicity makes it a hit at house parties, too.

What’s interesting about the Red Bull cocktails isn’t their popularity, though. What’s interesting is that, like Four Loko, Red Bull cocktails are filled with caffeine and alcohol. In fact, all things being equal, they’re filled with more caffeine and alcohol than any Four Loko ever was. Consider this: In one 8.3-ounce can of Red Bull, there are 80 milligrams of caffeine. If Red Bull cans were as big as Four Loko cans, they would contain 240 milligrams of caffeine, more than 100 milligrams more than is in a Four Loko. What’s more, most vodkas are 80 proof, meaning they’re at least 40 percent alcohol.

What this means is that, depending on the ingredient ratios, if one were to consume 23.5 ounces of Red Bull cocktails, one could very well be consuming far more caffeine and alcohol than there is in any single can of Four Loko.

The argument Cord Jefferson is making in that piece is that the hysteria is classist: no one cares what rich guys in swanky bars drink, but everyone freaks out because lower-income dudes can get ’faced for just a couple bucks. And maybe he has a point, though, as he notes, there was a similar hue and cry when RB&V first became a bar staple. But let’s put that aside for a second.

The bottom line is, to Richard and the FDA and hordes of frantic parents out there, Four Loko is especially dangerous because it combines alcohol with caffeine, and the caffeine shuts off your body’s natural reaction to too much alcohol intake—that is, going to sleep. What’s more, it’s cheap and, apparently, sweet enough to satisfy the palates of the 18-year-old set, which is young and stupid enough to down too many of these things. Mixing uppers and downers is never a good thing. But: Do you really think that banning Four Loko, or anything else for that matter, is going to stop kids from figuring out that if they chug a Red Bull in between sessions of Coors Light or Jose Cuervo or whatever cheap vodka comes in plastic jugs and in bulk from the BJ’s across the state line in Delaware, they’ll be able to stay awake longer and, consequently, drink more? I had that figured out well before the advent of Four Loko, and I can assure you that, in this, the information age, the kids today are much better informed on these things than I was as a college frosh in 1997. If I want a particularly late-night bender—a rarer and rare occurrence these days—downing one of those five-hour energy shots does the trick. Oh, and those are totally legal. So is downing one, and following it with six shots of Jack Daniel’s.

Kids are kids, and they’ll do stupid things. That’s part of growing up. And yes, society should want to curb the ability of kids from screwing themselves (and the rest of us) too badly, but we shouldn’t cave in to each and every overhyped scandal that’s based on a few anecdotes and selectively ban products because some kids—who, again, are necessarily stupid—got loaded on them and crashed their cars or whatever. That’s not to be blase toward underage drinking, or to condone youthful indiscretions merely because they were, well, youthful. It is, however, to we should be mindful of the ramifications of these rushes to judgment.

Consider, if you will, the case of Moonshot, a caffeinated craft beer that, according to the FDA, is also a menace to society:

BOSTON (November 19, 2010): Rhonda Kallman, founder of the fledgling New Century Brewing Company, said she was surprised to learn that her craft beer, Moonshot, was labeled by the FDA as a “public health concern” due to its 69 milligrams of caffeine. Moonshot, at a modest 4% alcohol and about as much caffeine as less than half cup of Starbucks in each 12-ounce bottle, seemed an unlikely target. The craft-brewed pilsner-style beer is sold in bars and restaurants in only three states.

Kallman, a craft beer industry pioneer and co-founder of the Boston Beer Company, has years of experience selling and marketing premium beers in a responsible way. She introduced Moonshot in 2004, after its formula was approved by the federal agency responsible for monitoring alcoholic beverage formulas.

But in the wake of recent high profile incidents involving underage drinking and the controversial Four Loko, a high-energy drink with 12% alcohol and as much caffeine as four cups of coffee in each 23.5 ounce serving, the FDA has concluded that caffeinated beverages violate safety rules, and it issued warning letters to four companies, including New Century Brewing. Kallman has been ordered to reformulate Moonshot without caffeine or face a ban of its sales. She has been given 15 days to comply.

Bias alert: I am an occasional drinker of coffee stouts, a style of craft beer that is made with coffee and often contains some caffeine, and which may or may not fall prey to this latest round of fear mongering. But even if it isn’t, my underlying premise remains the same: Four Loko may be (and probably is) a nauseating batch of nastiness, but banning it will do absolutely nothing to stop kids from combining alcohol with caffeine, getting all kinds of messed up, and doing stupid things.

(Disclosure: This is my fourth day at Philly Mag, and I’ve yet to meet Richard Rys in person; hence, I know nothing of his proclivities. The subtitle, of course, is a reference to this.)