In a crowded Washington DC bar one recent Friday night, a patron carrying a nefarious-looking black plastic bag pushes his way past bearded hipsters and preppy Capitol Hill staffers, stopping at a table packed with weekend revelers.
“Check this out,” he says, holding up the bag. He pulls out a tall colorful can of Four Loko, a fizzy-lifting drink loaded with caffeine and booze that made headlines recently when it was banned by the Food and Drug Administration.
Nearly everyone at the table lunges to touch the taboo cocktail, pulling it in close to finally catch a glimpse of what they had heard so much about.
“I’ve got a fridge full of this stuff,” says the grinning supplier. “I loaded up.”
It’s not every day a hip crowd goes bonkers over a malt beverage that tastes like raspberry battery acid and sells for a Jefferson at the gas station next door. Since the federal government announced a vendetta against the idea that you could profit from putting liquor and caffeine in a can, everyone wants a shot at the tin Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. You can’t resist it.
Nevermind that many of the party-goers are three drinks into other concoctions of caffeine and alcohol — Rum and Cokes and Vodka Red Bulls abound — the only banned substance at the table was the fruity-flavored Four Loko.
The drink has earned a bad rap in recent months. Local media outlets have reported that empty Four Loko cans have been found at the scene of car accidents and near raucous college parties that left students filling hospital beds. State attorneys general around the country have moved to ban the drink; New York Sen. Charles Schumer called on his state to get rid of it; and the FDA sent warning letters to companies that sell the product. Advocates against the drink say that the mix of caffeine and alcohol are dangerous and they accuse the manufacturers of marketing the products to children.
Phusion Projects, the company that makes Four Loko, buckled early and announced they would pull the caffeine out of their drinks, but refused to concede that their product was unsafe.
“The combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe,” the company’s heads Chris Hunter, Jeff Wright and Jaisen Freeman said in a joint statement. “If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees that have been consumed safely and responsibly for years would face the same scrutiny that our products have recently faced. …We are taking this step after trying – unsuccessfully – to navigate a difficult and politically-charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels.”
The campaign against Four Loko didn’t appear out of nowhere. The march to the drink’s demise was led by a group of advocacy organizations that have been after companies that mix the substances for years.
“We want the products gone,” said Michael J. Scippa, a spokesman for the Marin Institute, a group that has led the charge against Four Loko. “We find them to be of no redeeming value whatsoever. We are asking the FDA to intervene because they have the ability to say caffeine should not be an ingredient in an alcoholic beverage.”
Anyone who’s ever wanted a splash of whiskey in their java would probably beg to differ. Scippa, however, insists that he’s not after your Irish Coffee.
“We’re talking about apples and oranges,” he said when asked if he would support a government ban on putting two legal liquids in a cup. “We’re not talking about stepping on people’s abilities to have an Irish Coffee or a Red Bull and vodka if that’s what they choose to do. Because you can only do it in a bar or in the comfort of your own home.”
The real issue here, advocates contend, is that drinks like Four Loko are cheap and marketed with bright colors: An apparently deadly combination that could lure the unsuspecting and generally temperate youth to find alcohol. One anti-Four Loko advocate compared it to the Budweiser commercials in the 1990s with the talking frogs.
“Whether the manufacturers are purposefully marketing towards underage people or not, it’s almost beside the point,” said Stephen Wallace, chairman and CEO of Students Against Drunk Driving. “If the marketing initiatives and the product itself are appealing to young people and leading to an increase of alcohol consumption…then the industry should voluntarily take steps to correct itself, with or without government regulation.”
He added that he “applauds” government efforts to root out the drink, calling caffeine and booze a “deadly double dose of danger.” He also said the group was not focused on banning bar tenders from mixing energy drinks with liquor.
Not surprisingly, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (they still exist! Party like it’s 1929!) has jumped into the ring, adamantly supporting a ban on serving mixed drinks that include caffeine and alcohol, even in bars.
“There is never any occasion for the use of alcohol. Caffeine in itself is bad enough without the addition of alcohol,” said WCTU spokesman Rita Wert.
As expected, the ban has resulted in cans flying off the shelves in convenience stores around the country.
“They’re developing a cult status, which is dangerous too,” noted Scippa.
One can only wonder what caused that.