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The Self Shelf: The folly of banning Four Loko

Published: November 19, 2010
Section: Opinions


It seems that the latest rage for both state governments and schools is to ban the sale of the popular caffeinated alcoholic beverage, Four Loko. Colloquially referred to as “black out in a can,” Four Loko is equivalent to five beers and three cups of coffee. Experts worry about the effects of mixing caffeine with alcohol, rightfully so. There is even a website, fourlokostories.com, which deals exclusively with tales of unfortunate souls who had a little too much Four Loko for their own good. Recently, even the FDA has put pressure on the producer of Four Loko, which has volunteered to remove the caffeine from the drink.

Now Four Loko will be a safer drink for all (although I don’t see your doctor recommending it anytime soon). Yet the approach taken by states and college campuses to Four Loko previously (and for what I suspect will be a good while after), i.e. banning it, was and is a horrible policy.

The first problem with straight up banning Four Loko is that it was not a unique threat, even when it was caffeinated, compared with other legal alcoholic beverages. Take, for example, the fact that one could just as easily mix the popular alcoholic beverage Jaegermeister, with the energy drink Red Bull, to produce almost exactly the same effect as Four Loko. In fact, this combination is already so popular that it has a name, the “Jaegerbomb.” At the point where all of the ingredients for Four Loko are available on the open market, why should the combination of these ingredients be illegal?

Furthermore, at the point where you allow alcoholic beverages on the market, it’s difficult to make distinctions as to which beverages are safe for consumption and which are not without appearing arbitrary. In the end, every alcoholic beverage is dangerous and presents a threat to society. If I have 20 bears, I will probably get more “messed up” than drinking a Four Loco. Alcohol is already on the market—people who want to get drunk will get drunk regardless of this policy.

Additionally, the idea of banning Four Loko was also a bad idea due to the overall lack of efficacy the policy would get. When you ban a drink like Four Loko, you guarantee two things.

Firstly, you ensure that the demand for the drink will increase to the point where it will be imported from other states that don’t ban it and also that it will drastically increase in popularity.

Secondly, you guarantee that imitators will present themselves (such as the “Jaegerbomb”), which will probably be more dangerous than the drink in the first place. Outright banning the drink will not relieve the market of it nor truly deny people the ability to endure the same effects with much more dangerous drinks. As long as there is a market for these drinks (which you will almost certainly create by banning it), people will find a way to get them. Honestly, I had never heard of Four Loko nor had I heard anyone mention it before it was banned on certain campuses.

Now is it possible to educate about the effects of Four Loko? Absolutely—people should know just how dangerous this and similar beverages are. This article is not a defense of Four Loko but rather an appeal to common sense. Everyone knows drinking Four Loko is a bad idea. If you really want to make sure people know, then attach a warning label (there are already labels on most alcoholic beverages anyway). If you really want to discourage its consumption, then levy a tax on it. The only thing you do by banning it is make sure it becomes popular with the kind of people who would abuse it in the first place.

Finally, there is the idea of personal freedom with respect to a drink like Four Loko. The government allows consenting adults to consume alcohol of their own volition in spite of the fact that it’s incredibly harmful. The idea in doing so is that we are responsible enough as a society to look out for ourselves. Is this drink harmful? Yes, but is that reason enough for the government to ban it? Certainly not considering the government allows more harmful substances on the market. Four Loko, in my opinion, is actually less dangerous than strong forms of tequila and other powerful drinks which are allowed on the open market. In the end, it should be up to the people to make responsible decisions rather than have the government make them for them.

Yet this article is slightly late as the FDA has already taken action in regards to Four Loko. As a result of the FDA’s admonishment, Fusion Products, the maker of Four Loko, has voluntarily eliminated the caffeine content in its drinks. This is definitely better than straight up banning Four Loko as now people can drink the increasingly popular drink without many of the side effects. Yet I would still contest the hypocrisy of the FDA for banning a drink like Four Loko while allowing other more dangerous drinks to remain on the market.

I’m sure college campuses everywhere will toast the news of the FDA’s action but they can only hope that their students don’t toast it with a “Jaegerbomb” or any other caffeinated mixed drink combo.