Lessons from Four Loko: Don’t Be Too Good

That lawmakers are still wringing their hands about the alcoholic (formerly caffeinated) drink, Four Loko, reveals that their fears have nothing to do with possible side effects of mixing caffeine and alcohol. No, Four Loko’s great sin is that it is popular.

According to the Phusion Projects website, the company was founded by three college friends in 2005 who took out a small business loan and “put their financial resources on the line.” Four years later the company had 90 employees and annual sales of $144 million as of October 31, 2010, according to the Symphony IRI Group, a market research firm based in Chicago.

The colorful 23-ounce cans with candy-sweet flavors like watermelon, grape, and fruit punch, contain 156 milligrams of caffeine (approximately as much as a cup of coffee), 12 percent alcohol by volume, and cost around $3 a can. Because of their size, cost, and flavor, Four Loko quickly became a favorite among college students discovering the world of alcoholic energy drinks.

In 2009 sales of Joose alcoholic energy drink products tripled to 1.3 million cases in the U.S., while Phusion Projects’ Four Loko and Four Maxed increased by 2,680 percent in the same 12-month period. During this time, as college students, who aren’t exactly known for their self-control, began to consume these products with greater frequency, news stories began to surface about cases of alcohol poisoning and other injuries occurring while college students consumed alcoholic energy drinks.

As the media picked up and ran with the theme of irresponsible college partiers drinking too much (as if it never happened before Four Loko), campuses began banning the drinks and state attorneys general began petitioning the FDA to pull the product from market.

Though there isn’t anything particular new about Four Loko (Red Bull has been combined with vodka since the late ’90s), and there is no real evidence that the combination of alcohol and caffeine poses a particular health risk for healthy adults who drink the combo in moderation, Phusion Projects along with other manufacturers of AEDs “voluntarily” pulled their products from the market at the end of 2010. Since then, Phusion Projects has reformulated Four Loko, taking out the caffeine and reintroducing the product to market in 2011.

Despite the fact that the Phusion Projects has gone to great and expensive lengths to appease worrywarts, reformulating their product and even offering financial assistance to create alcohol-education programs on college campuses, some are still complaining that the product could end up “in the wrong hands.” They fear that youngsters will still be attracted to the big colorful cans. The makers of Four Loko are probably praying that all of their customer come back to the product — they want to survive as a company. Based on the lamentations of Loko fans after its “demise,” most probably will return to drinking it and some of those repeat customers will probably be underage. But should Phusion Projects, a multi-million dollar company and employer of nearly 100 people, be punished because minors are somehow getting their hands on a product that is illegal for them to purchase?

“I think they’re packaged to appeal to underage drinkers,” said Jim Hatch, the Senior Investigator of Erie County, New York’s Sheriff’s Office.

Well, Mr. Hatch, whose job is it to make sure minors aren’t illegal purchasing Four Loko? Is it Phusion Projects’ job or the job of  law enforcement agencies such as the Sheriff’s Office?