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How the Nanny State Won't Stop Caffeine and Alchohol Mixes

Last week the FDA moved to ban caffeinated alcohol drinks after state politicians stopped Four Loko sales. But nanny state measures won't stop overconsumption.

Four Loko was declawed of its caffeine last week, after the FDA made initial moves to bancaffeinated alcohol beverages at the state and national levels. As a result, the drink skyrocketed even further into cult status.

The moment Representative Charles Schumerannounced his intent to get the drink booted from New York State, people seemed to race to every bodega in every borough, scooping up cases of it, hoarding it like speakeasy gunrunners. While riding the NYC subway Thursday, I overheard two men in their early 20s talking about a friend who had a stash, and was charging $10 a can. Even at a $7 markup, they sounded pretty eager to pay it.

Then, after the FDA implied its own ban, the Twitter hashtag #fourlokoingredients emerged, spoofing the hysteria with fake Four Loko recipe formulas that included everything from babies to crack cocaine. A Legalize Loko Web site popped up, too, complete with FDA petition and supportive T-shirts.

Four Loko has always had some meme appeal–if the cheeky name and camo can design didn’t help its standing among daring revelers, the fact that it looks (and sort of tastes) like radiator fluid did. Even Brooklyn assemblyman Feliz Ortiz pulled a page from Morgan Spurlock’s playbook and drank two and a half Four Lokos in an hour, with a doctor monitoring his blood pressure and alcohol levels the whole time. He emerged with a .185 alcohol level and seemed sort of proud of himself. But nothing gains popularity faster in American culture than an illicit substance, and this felt like a modern-day episode of Boardwalk Empire, played out in real-time.

In other words, the FDA’s nanny stance totally backfired.

In a statement regarding FDA's warning letters to Four Loko and three other companies, Principal Deputy Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said, “FDA does not find support for the claim that the addition of caffeine to these alcoholic beverages is ‘generally recognized as safe,’ which is the legal standard. To the contrary, there is evidence that the combinations of caffeine and alcohol in these products pose a public health concern.”

Loko announced it would dump the caffeine from its formula to comply with federal demands, but neither the FDA nor Schumer has yet to provide any scientific evidence to the contrary, willing to pre-emptively curtail our liberties before sorting out whether or not their own statements are true. And, as many have pointed out, mixing caffeine and alcohol is a time-honored tradition, manifest in everything from rum and cola to Red Bull and vodka -- Four Loko’s kin. (If they expect to effectively regulate those drinks, too, expect an FDA flunkie posted up in your house 24 hours a day until you pledge teetotaller.)  

For its part, Phusion, the small, Chicago-based business that manufactures Four Loko, countered the FDA with a statement on its Web site:

We have repeatedly contended – and still believe, as do many people throughout the country – that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe. 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. In addition, if our products were unsafe, we would not have expected the federal agency responsible for approving alcoholic beverage formulas – the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) – to have approved them. Yet, all of our product formulas and packaging were reviewed and approved by the TTB before being offered to consumers.”

The incidents that first sparked the Four Loko fracas were, indeed, horrible, and with them came litigation. Most recently, in Florida, two separate cases are pending against the beverage company, including parents who claimed their son accidentally shot himself after drinking for 30 straight hours; and a 20-year-old Orlando woman who lost her hand in a car accident after riding with a driver who was drunk off Four Loko. And in Maryland, the family of a 21-year-old woman who crashed her car into a telephone pole is blaming her death on the fact that she drank two cans of Four Loko before driving.

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