Four Loko: Just How Potent is the Caffeinated Alcoholic Drink?

Over the past few days, I’ve gotten plenty of angry e-mail from people critical of my defense of caffeinated alcoholic beverages like Four Loko, Joose, and Hard Wired.  Typical claims are that, “if it was [my] son or daughter ending up in emergency with a (sic) overdose of alcohol it wouldn’t be opposition to ban it,” and that “Your disgusting and your barely disguised right wing industry front is pathetic”.  My favorite, though, is, “I hope one of YOUR kids or family members dies from it, see how you feel.”

You might think that, boy, these products must really be awful to elicit that kind of a response — a message that the prohibitionists very definitely want you to get.  But just how potent IS a typical Alcohol-Energy Drink like Four Loko?  Let’s have a look.

A 23.5 oz can of Four Loko has 156 mg of caffeine.  You might think, “Wow!  What kind of caffeine-induced buzz is that going to get you?”  About the same as in a small/tall (8 oz cup) Starbucks coffee (160 mg).  By 7:30 this morning, I had already had nearly twice as much caffeine from my daily coffee.  The prohibitionists also like to point out that a 23.5 oz can of Four Loko has twice the caffeine as a can of Red Bull (76 mg).  But what they neglect to say is that Red Bull comes in 8.2 oz cans, which means that they’re just 1/3 the size and have about 50 percent more caffeine per unit volume.

Of course, there’s also the alcohol.  Four Loko is 12 percent alcohol by volume, which amounts to the equivalent of four to four-and-a-half typical American-style pilsner beers, such as Budweiser, Coors, and Miller, with approximate 4.8 to 5 ABV.  Still, ounce for ounce, you get about 50 percent more caffeine and about the same amount of alcohol in a vodka and Red Bull cocktail (8.2 oz of Red Bull plus a 1.5 oz shot of 80 proof spirits).  And you get about three times as much caffeine and about the same amount of alcohol in a cup of Irish coffee made by mixing a tall Starbucks coffee with a 1.5 oz shot of 80 proof spirits.

In order to conclude that AEDs are worse, you have to buy the notion that your typical partying teenager or young adult would stop at just one or two vodka and Red Bulls.  But actual observation of the wild college partier or young professional in his natural setting indicates that that’s a pretty far-fetched assumption.  So, it’s not remotely clear that there is anything uniquely unsafe about AEDs.  Nor do I believe that a ban on AEDs will do anything at all to stem the genuine problem of alcohol abuse among teenagers and young adults.  Indeed, to the extent that some AED consumers may revert to the vodka and Red Bull alternative, the AED ban could have negative public health consequences because the far higher level of caffeine in those self-mixed or bartender-mixed cocktails would be more likely to mask the effects of intoxication.

Perhaps more serious, in my view, is the fact that many of the activist organizations intimately involved with the movement to ban AEDs (led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest) began this fight to regulate caffeine, long before there was an AED market, by attacking non-alcoholic energy drinks like Jolt Cola, Red Bull, Monster, and Rock Star.  They’ve even been highly critical of Starbucks coffee for its caffeine content.  And the exact same legal rationale that the FDA used to ban AEDs (i.e., that FDA has not approved caffeine used as a food additive as GRAS for any use but in “cola type drinks,” making the addition of caffeine to malt beverages presumptively unsafe) could just as easily be applied to non-alcoholic energy drinks.  I fear, and with good reason I would argue, that we haven’t seen the last of FDA’s enforcement activity against caffeinated beverages.

Image credit: The Wisest Wizards’ flickr photostream.