Energy drunk: Smash hit on college campuses, Four Loko’s contents draw criticism
The drink earned the nickname ‘liquid cocaine.’
Four Loko tastes something like artificial fruit, and downing a can of the malt beverage is like downing a cup of coffee with three beers.
Four Loko is one of the newest caffeinated alcoholic drinks to hit the market. It comes in tall-boy, 23-ounce cans with bright blue, green and yellow logos that advertise flavors like watermelon, raspberry, lemon-lime and lemonade. The beverage features doses of guarana and taurine, in addition to caffeine — more than enough to give drinkers a jolt of energy during their drinking binge.
The drink has taken off in popularity, especially on college campuses where students are attracted to its high alcohol content and cheap price. It inspired several amateur artists to post YouTube music videos about it and prompted a U.S. senator to call for an investigation into its confusing marketing strategy.
At Syracuse University, Four Loko attracts a wide variety of supporters, from upperclassmen to freshman and from greek life bashes to low-key house parties.
Tiffany Tanz, an undeclared freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she has never tried the drink but knows a lot of people who have.
‘I’ve seen it a lot,’ Tanz said.
Tanz said she would stay away from the drink, mostly because of its high alcohol content.
Students mistakenly believe the caffeine, a stimulant, and the alcohol, a depressant, will benefit the drinker, said Sarah Short, a nutrition professor.
‘Well, it’s an upper and a downer, so it’s not going to even out somehow,’ Short said.
With its combination of a stimulant and a depressant, Four Loko will not make the drinker experience a more awake buzz. On the contrary, the combination and the high alcohol content will fool students into believing they are drinking less alcohol. How drunk the consumer gets then depends on his or her body composition and tolerance, Short said.
When someone consumes a drink like Four Loko, the caffeine is likely absorbed before the alcohol, increasing the heart rate. The alcohol is absorbed soon afterward, slowing down the consumer’s body functions in a short period of time.
To make matters worse, it’s doubtful any doctors will run studies on the exact effects of these caffeinated alcoholic drinks, Short said.
‘I don’t think there is really a consensus on what this will do to you,’ she said.
Doctors shy away from alcohol studies, fearing a study participant would die or become ill from consuming too much alcohol. Many alcohol studies are considered unethical, Short said.
As for Four Loko’s popularity, at least one college, Ramapo College of New Jersey, banned the beverage from its campus because it experienced a spike in student trips to the hospital after students consumed alcohol. At least six students were hospitalized after consuming Four Loko this year, CBS News reported Friday.
The growing popularity of the drink prompted Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to send letters to the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission, calling for an investigation and possible sanctions against the drink and its manufacturers, Phusion Projects.
‘The style and promotion of these products is extremely troubling,’ Schumer wrote in the letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. ‘Frankly, it looks to me as if manufacturers are trying to mislead adults and business owners who sell these products, while at the same time actively courting underage drinkers. This type of marketing is, at minimum, grossly irresponsible.’
The FTC has the power to regulate advertising and marketing campaigns. Schumer alleges Four Loko targets underage drinkers and youth in general with its campaign.
In 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed lawsuits against Anheuser-Busch and Miller-Coors to stop selling their caffeinated alcoholic drinks, according to the center’s website. Busch sold both Bud Extra and Tilt, and Miller produced Spark. Since then, both companies have stopped selling the alcoholic energy drinks.
Schumer also argues the labeling and packaging of Four Loko make it difficult to distinguish it from regular drinks. Four Loko comes in cans that are roughly the same size as energy drinks Monster and Vault, and Four Loko cans all feature bright, colorful packaging.
‘Some stores even stock them directly next to non-alcohol energy drinks, causing further confusion for both legal and underage consumers,’ Schumer said in the letter to the FTC.
The FDA, which possesses the ability to regulate the drink’s contents, is in the process of responding to the letter, said Schumer’s deputy press secretary, John Rizzo. The FTC has already responded, and Schumer’s office is waiting for the results of an FTC report.
Jay Wright, a communications law professor, said the FTC would try to limit Four Loko’s advertising if it felt the advertisements improperly targeted children.
The FTC did this before, when it banned the use of cartoon characters from cigarette advertising, which included the termination of Camel cigarette’s Joe Camel.
Four Loko may agree to scale back its advertising. Many advertisers prefer self-regulation to imposed rulings from the FTC.
Before anything happens, though, the FTC will need to see concrete facts that prove the advertising has a direct effect on youth and underage alcohol consumption.
Wright said: ‘You can’t just go in and change someone’s advertising campaign without real evidence.’
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