The ban on caffeinated alcohol is “Loko”

Robby Soave Reporter
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Concerned parents across the country are no doubt still celebrating the demise of Four Loko, the infamous alcoholic energy drink marketed directly to college students — who are somewhat less thrilled to see it go, if Facebook’s News Feed is any indication. Still, hostility to such products, which recently prompted the Federal Drug Administration to ban them, is entirely misplaced. Instead of worrying about whether college kids are going to ingest risky substances (short answer: they will, no matter what the government does), people should take issue with the baseless hysteria that prompted unelected bureaucrats to force dozens of products off the market.

Because my home state of Michigan was the second state to ban Four Loko, it deserves its fair share of blame for embracing and continuing the trend that culminated in the FDA’s decision. But how did Michigan ban Four Loko, as well as 55 other products? Casual civic observers may have expected the process to work something like this: the state House of Representatives would vote on legislation prohibiting sales of the alcoholic energy drinks, the state Senate would approve it, and the governor would sign the bill into law.

Strangely, no such process occurred. Instead, the Liquor Control Commission — a state agency created in the wake of Prohibition — held a meeting in which its administrative commissioners voted 2-1 to institute a ban. Just two votes were enough to remove Four Loko and dozens of similar beverages from the shelves of state retailers.

While the LCC’s actions were legally permissible under regulatory powers granted to it by the state, short-circuiting the legislative process hardly seems wise. Bans on products typically require dozens of legislators, their staffs, and the governor’s office to hold hearings, survey constituents, conduct research, and argue with each other. While this process is hardly perfect, it involves several hundred individuals, and the end product reflects, for better or worse, their collective judgment. Leaving the decision to ban products in the hands of just three people is an inferior, anti-democratic route.

What’s more, if the people of Michigan didn’t agree with the decision, how were they supposed to hold the agency accountable? Legislators can be voted out of office. The administrative commissioners of the LCC can’t be; theirs is an appointed position. The same goes for the commissioners of the FDA, whose actions put an end to alcoholic energy drinks nationwide.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Four Loko ban, much like the public panic that produced it, was ill advised. According to Andrea Miller, Public Information Officer for the LCC, there were two major reasons for the ban: negative coverage of the products in the media, and complaints from parents groups. Neither of them holds up under scrutiny.

Especially frustrating is the fact that news coverage of isolated Four Loko incidents fueled the ban. What news outlets do not report on, of course, are all the instances when Four Loko was consumed responsibly with no harm to the people involved. Instead, they seized upon the few times that alcoholic energy drinks contributed to reckless behavior. These events — the sexual assault of a Detroit-area 14-year-old girl was one example — are despicable. But was the drink really the problem? It’s hard to believe that a 14-year-old kid couldn’t have gotten into similar trouble with a variety of other alcoholic beverages, all of which were already illegal for teenagers to use — including Four Loko.

These types of incidents are often due to bad parenting, which is exactly what parents groups who pushed for the ban are displaying. Alcoholic products will find their way into teenage hands no matter what the law says. Parents shouldn’t thrust their responsibility to monitor their kids’ behavior onto the state.

Ill-conceived as it is, it’s no surprise that the Four Loko ban is likely to increase what its supporters are trying to prevent, at least in the short term. Retailers in Michigan have 30 days to liquidate 55 drinks from their shelves, during which time plenty of college-aged kids will surely want to try “blackout in a can” for themselves. The controversy only makes these types of drinks more appealing to those who haven’t tried them. And even if obtaining Four Loko becomes impossible, aren’t students capable of mixing caffeine and alcohol on their own?

The anti-Four Loko hysteria has succeeded, at least for the time being. But the panic is baseless, no matter how many people have fallen for it. State and federal lawmakers should bring Prohibitionist liquor agencies under control and rescind the various bans. It is regulators, not college students, who should be forced to sober up.

Robert Soave is a writer and Michigan native. He currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona.