Yesterday, while fishing for strange and interesting bits of trivia to include on the Facts and Figures page of the next issue of National Underwriter Life & Health, I recalled a flurry of news stories about a week old regarding the outlawing of alcoholic energy drinks. In one story, nine college students in Washington gave themselves alcohol poisoning while throwing back cans of a drink called Four Loko, which offers a high level of alcohol mixed with unspecified quantities of caffeine, taurene and guarene. Similar incidents in Rhode Island and New Jersey have led to colleges in those states to advising against or forbidding outright the consumption of such beverages on campus. Elsewhere, the war on these drinks has gone even further with state liquor boards in Michigan, Washington, Utah and other states forbidding the sale of these drinks.
Phusion Projects, the maker of Four Loko, defended itself by stating that people have been mixing alcohol and caffeine safely for years, with drinks such as rum and Coke, and more recently, Red Bull and vodka. The difference, critics point out, is that drinks like Four Loko and its competitors (such as Joose and Charge) appear to be designed from the start to give both the maximum stimulant buzz as well as the biggest drunk possible, all in a single can. Moreover, the cans themselves are usually sold singly, aimed at young drinkers looking to “front-load,” or get buzzed before a night of additional drinking. Critics further contend that these drinks, which typically contain as much caffeine as a six-pack of soda, apply a buzz to the drinker that offsets the initial feeling of alcohol intoxication. The drinks themselves do not foam, and the cans have wide mouths, encouraging speedy consumption, and what typically happens is one can turns into two. In the case of Four Loko, with 12% alcohol by volume (twice that of most strong beers, and almost triple that of your average Guinness), just two cans of the stuff are enough to result in alcohol poisoning for a person weighing 135 pounds. In other words, your typical female college student.
There’s a reason why these drinks are called “blackout in a can,” and as media attention swirled around them in general, and Four Loko in particular, Phusion went on the defensive, even going so far as scrubbing its most questionable advertising from its social media presence and changing its website’s into page to spin a yarn about the owners as just a couple of hard-working guys with a dream of producing fun beverages.
The alcohol energy drink business is a dodgy one at best, with anecdotal stories of planning meetings where products are aimed specifically at poor urban drinkers, or young college drinkers likely to binge. The makers are fond of boasting the ingredients of their concoctions except when officials want to hold them liable for it. And by selling these things at low prices, they are clearly aiming for a market that seeks to buy the greatest toxic effect for the lowest price.
It would be hypocritical of me to overlook that when I was in college, we sometimes held “Mad Dog Night,” where each attendee was furnished with their own bottle of Mad Dog 20/20, which was well more than enough to send you to worship the porcelain deity by the end of the evening. I remember when the state of Virginia banned the sale of such beverages for much the same reasons why states are banning alcoholic energy drinks now. And why, for that matter, the FDA is causing other forms of drinks, like the odiously named energy drink Cocaine to change their labeling. (Cocaine, by the way, markets itself as “the legal alternative” and contains 280 mg of caffeine per 8.5 oz. can. That’s only 20 mg short of a caffeine overdose.) At the time, I recall being mildly annoyed by the state’s decision, but I also acknowledged that it was for the best. Mad Dog Night was usually a quick trip to the emergency room for somebody.
A funny thing about Four Loko; as it’s circling its wagons, it does not offer any official photos for media use. No press kit, no downloads, nothing. Having already decided to run a photo of it in National Underwriter, I decided to run down to the nearest liquor store outside of the National Underwriter office and pick up a can so I could shoot it myself. It was 11 am, and when I asked the proprietor if he carried Four Loko, he smirked, apparently amused that somebody was looking to get their drink on that aggressively on a Thursday morning. He told me the stuff is really popular, and that’s when it hit me: drinks like this don’t need to advertise. They don’t need media photos that’ll be used against them. They just need to get enough ids dangerously FUBARed and let word of mouth take it from there. Somehow it all reminds me of a story I read in the Wall Street Journal some 15 years ago of how a liquid protein drink supposedly developed for use by weightlifters was in fact being marketed and sold to inner city crack addicts so they could nourish themselves although most of them had lost most of their teeth. The product was not dangerous. But there was an exploitation going on, and the product was pressured off the shelves.
Four Loko will go the same way. It’ll hang about until enough shops stop carrying it or some other extreme drink takes its place. How funny it is that somehow, rich college kids are just as susceptible to cynical marketing as crack addicts. How sad it is that the situation requires official intervention to disrupt. How nice it would be if people could learn how to handle their drinking earlier and more moderately, so by the time they get to school their first inclination isn’t to drink a Four Loko and end up drowning in a puddle of their own sick.
In the meantime, let it be known that I poured the can of Four Loko that I bought down the drain of our office kitchen sink. I even dragged along one of my editors to bear witness to it, lest rumors swirl that I was drinking on the job. Given what’s in a can of this stuff, though, I can’t imagine I would have been able to hide it, had I consumed it. By about noon I would have become boss-punching drunk and submitted a daily news item consisting of the letter Z for three pages. And yet, to somebody, somewhere, that’s a blueprint for a good time. No wonder why health underwriting is such a hard job.