Call it “blackout in a can.”
Since its whirlwind romance with college students began this June, Four Loko has taken the world by storm, becoming a veritable phenomenon faster, even, than Obama, The Beatles or American Eagle. Its name is veiled in mystique, and is quickly becoming a part of the vernacular of the young folks at Yale, in the concrete jungle where dreams are made of there’s nothing you can’t do and even in the sprawl. At Wesleyan University, students rate parties and other cool things based on how “loko” they are. A pretty all right party earns two or maybe three loko, whereas the most out-of-control can score up to 12 loko, said Chase Niesner ’13, who observed his unsavory friends slurp down the nasty nectar last weekend during a visit.
But as Four Loko gains popularity, more and more are raising the red flag over its safety and marketing, saying that not only is combining a cup of coffee with three beers (roughly the caffeine and alcohol content of one Four Loko can) a dangerous concoction, it’s appealing mostly to minors.
Their claims are not without merit — just take a look at the Facebook page that’s sprung up in its honor, aptly titled “four lokos are blackouts in a can and the end of my morals.” The page features a picture displaying the beverage’s wide variety of flavors and description that I’m sure was written by some girl who went to my high school: “12% alcohol with the fruity taste of your choice 🙂 WARNING: you will remember absolutely nothing in the morning, probably acted like a slut, and possibly tried to fight someone. It’s a four loko thing…”
The page has 61,307 fans — that’s more than the pages for Hillary Clinton, Nelson Mandela and Christine O’Donnell combined. Of my 10 friends who “like” the idea that Four Loko is morally bankrupt, nine are female and nine are underage.
In fact, government officials like Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 are so concerned about the potential health risks of similar alcoholic energy drinks that in November 2009 the FDA began to investigate the implications of adding caffeine to alcohol. The results of this investigation are not yet public, but many are already condemning the beverage as a nuisance.
All this intrigue raises the unanswerable, age-old question: why do young people drink? Because they’re unhappy.
The real question here is, why would anyone choose to drink Four Loko?
One fan of the beverage, who requested anonymity because he’s afraid of Goldman, said of the Watermelon variety: “it smells like a jolly rancher, tastes like a butthole.”
Indeed, many of those who have tasted the beverage describe it similarly. It’s like some sort of rotten fruit mixed with battery acid, though some flavors taste better than others, according to Alison Greenberg.
“The cranberry lemonade tastes the least like a bodily function,” she went on to say, adding that watermelon flavor is “deceivingly awful.”
The appeal must not, then, be the taste.
Another fan, who also requested anonymity because she’s afraid of Goldman, said the beverage grants a different sort of drunk than drinking three light beers or taking three one-ounce shots of hard liquor.
“You get way drunker… an ‘I don’t remember what the fuck happened kind of drunk,’” she said.
In addition, Niesner said, his friends described it as a jittery sort of drunk, similar to the jitters you feel before you get a shot at the doctor’s office. Another source described it as a “nervous energy…but it’s good.”
Above all, Four Loko is dirt cheap — one can at Broadway Liquor costs $2.50, according to a source (as I am underage, I was unable to purchase or sample the beverage in question for this piece). Niesner said the price is the main appeal for his depraved friends at Wesleyan, as he too said his friends described the taste as “gross” and the drunk as “blackout.”
For others, the discretion adds another layer of appeal to the onion of Four Loko. The same anonymous source from above said he thinks that, if he were to take a watermelon Loko to section — say, a 9:30 a.m. creative writing seminar — he thinks it could pass for a Monster energy drink.
Discretion, price, high alcohol content; whatever the reason, Four Loko has exploded among students and campus groups since its release in June and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
But what exactly is a Four Loko? Aside from generalities like taurine, caffeine, gaurana, alcohol (the quadrinity from which the beverage takes its name), specific ingredients are nowhere on the can. It’s 12 percent alcohol by volume (at least when sold in Connecticut; some states limit the drink to 6 percent alcohol by volume), and according to the company that distributes it, it contains the same amount of caffeine as a tall cup of coffee. Deeper detail on the ingredients, though, are difficult or nearly impossible to locate on the website of Phusion Projects, the company that distributes the beverage, though the website does explicitly state that Four Loko contains no traces of wormwood. No traces!
Despite the lack of ingredients, there’s no lack of debate over the health impacts of an alcoholic energy drink like Four Loko. In 2008, brewing company MillerCoors faced a lawsuit over its own alcoholic energy drink, Sparks, from a consumer group called the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The CSPI’s concerns centered on the health impacts of consuming alcohol with caffeine (although research on the subject is somewhat light, reported dangers include a propensity toward binge drinking and an increased likelihood of injury compared to consuming alcohol alone), and a perception that it was being marketed toward teens. In December 2008, three months after the lawsuit was first filed, MillerCoors agreed to pull caffeine from Sparks to “reinforce its commitment to alcohol responsibility.”
For their part, Phusion Projects has said they are being targeted somewhat unfairly, given that combining caffeine and alcohol is “nothing new or novel.”
“People have safely enjoyed mixing alcohol and caffeine products for years in their homes, and in restaurants and bars; having coffee after a meal with wine, or consuming rum and cola, an Irish coffee or a Red Bull and vodka are all popular practices,” said Jaisen Freeman, a Managing Partner with Phusion Projects, in an e-mail.
Further boosting Phusion’s argument is the conclusion of an independent panel they commissioned in hopes of attaining the FDA’s “Generally Recognized as Safe” notification for their products. The panel, which Freeman said consisted of food safety experts, “unanimously concluded that combining caffeine and alcohol is safe.”
So the FDA jury is still out on the safety of Four Loko, but that hasn’t kept students from embracing it as a key part of the youth party culture. Niesner’s friends, at least, didn’t experience any health issues aside from “spotty memory and perhaps-unintentional hookups.”
For now, like it or not, Four Loko is here to stay.