WHILE THE popularity of Four Loko on college campuses was bound to spark a backlash, the regulators who rushed to ban it and other caffeinated alcoholic drinks with a speed usually reserved for deadly viruses should be wary of fixating on specific faddish products — and missing a broader tendency toward binge drinking among students.
Some research indicates that, by masking some of the effects of alcohol, caffeine can allow drinkers to become more intoxicated than they otherwise would, and some deaths have been attributed to slickly marketed products such as Four Loko. The state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission issued an emergency regulation last week banning sales of alcoholic beverages with caffeine on the grounds that such products represent an immediate public-health risk.
That decision followed an action last Wednesday by the Food and Drug Administration declaring that Four Loko and similar drinks cannot remain on the market without changing their formulas. Yet while such drinks represent a relatively new niche in the world of alcoholic beverages, it’s not as though alcohol and caffeine — two legal and exceedingly common substances— are only now being combined for the first time. Before Four Loko, there was vodka and Red Bull. Before that, there was rum and Coke, not to mention Irish coffee.
To some degree, makers of caffeinated alcoholic drinks have played a double game, touting their innocuousness to regulators while promoting an image of outrageousness and extremity. The FDA’s move last week is already changing companies’ behavior; on the eve of the decision, Four Loko’s manufacturer announced that it would remove caffeine from its products.
But is anyone any safer? The problem isn’t the existence of beverages that help young people get wired and get tanked at the same time; it’s the reception those products receive in a college culture that fetishizes intoxication. And while banning individual products is the easy response, promoting moderation would serve better young drinkers’ interests over time.