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Loco Four Loko Hysteria

In the public health field, the worst thing a product can be is popular. Phusion Projects learned this the hard way. The company’s flagship drink, Four Loko, became the “it” beverage of frat parties around the country. But then, media reports linking the drink to cases of alcohol poisoning on college campuses attracted regulatory scrutiny, ultimately forcing the company to reformulate its product. After that, it wasn’t quite as popular. Of course, this did nothing to prevent college kids from binge drinking and landing in the hospital. Yet, health advocates declared “mission accomplished” anyway.

Few drinks have achieved the sort of infamous popularity Four Loko enjoyed. Today, if anything is close it is the hard seltzer craze of 2019, the sudden popularity of alcoholic sparkling water hasn’t yet attracted the ire of pearl-clutching fuddy-duddies. But, as former CEI intern, Connor Kianpour writes, it may just be a matter of time now that Four Loko has announced plans to release its own spiked seltzer.

- Michelle Minton

Summer used to be the time of sipping fruity, sugary mixed drinks poolside with your friends––until the summer of 2019. Seemingly out of nowhere, hard seltzer has become a craze among health-conscious, fad-dieting college students and young professionals, with makers like White Claw seeing sales rise by as much as 320 percent. Everything was going great for spiked seltzer. Then Phusion Projects decided to get into the game, releasing its sparkling alcoholic water. Those familiar with Phusion Projects and its most infamous product, Four Loko, know that this doesn’t bode well for spiked seltzer.

Four Loko, has a complicated past. At one time, the malt beverage contained not only sugary flavors and alcohol, but also caffeine, taurine, and guarana. The drink’s popularity among college students and dubious claims about the health risks of combining stimulants with alcohol led to regulatory scrutiny. Ultimately, Phusion Projects was forced to reformulate its product, removing the stimulatory ingredients. Since this alteration, Four Loko hasn’t come under the type of public scrutiny that got it banned in several states years ago. But it also hasn’t experienced anything near to the popularity it once had. 

Weeks ago, Phusion Products announced that it would be putting a new Four Loko product on the market, calling it “the hardest seltzer in the universe” with an ABV of 14 percent, nearly three times as high as other hard seltzers. Hard seltzers like White Claw, Truly, and Arctic Summer have been doing massively well recently, so it’s no surprise Phusion Products listened to these market signals and developed their own version of hard seltzer with a “loco” twist. 

Unfortunately—yet unsurprisingly—the announcement has already sparked a discussion about the “potential for harm” of Phusion’s new product. Some have remarked that “the hardest seltzer in the universe” is the beginning of “a dangerous trend,” while others have gone so far as to suggest that it will be “a danger to society.” While it is tempting to give credence to this kind of alarmism because a product like Phusion’s hard seltzer could easily be abused, this hysteria is unjustified for two reasons.

First, there are plenty of higher alcoholic drinks that those looking to get blackout drunk could reach for (see: jungle juice). To suggest that Four Loko would be responsible for drunken behavior that can be solely attributed to the drinking habits of consumers is laughable. It would be almost as laughable as blaming Popeye’s fried chicken sandwich for obesity.

Second, there’s no evidence that hard seltzer is driving irresponsible drinking among young people and zero reason to believe Four Loko’s hard seltzer will hold any appeal for youngsters looking to get drunk. One major reason that hard seltzer has become popular among millennials and Gen Z-ers is its low calorie content; concerns about weight seem to be driving their beverage choices. Normal hard seltzer is only low in calories because it is low in alcohol. For example, a 12-ounce can of hard seltzer at 5 percent ABV has about the same calorie count as a light beer. Four Loko’s high-octane seltzer boasts three times the alcohol, but this also means it will have three times the calories. Thus, those choosing hard seltzer out of health concerns will likely stick to the lower ABV varieties.

There is also no reason to believe that Four Loko’s hard seltzer will hold any appeal for those looking to get drunk. Unlike critics who previously accused the drink of appealing to college students because its fruity flavoring obscured its high alcohol content, Four Loko seltzer will presumably have a fairly mild taste. It is supposed to be seltzer, after all. As such, it’s unclear why Four Loko seltzer would be any more appealing to those looking to get blackout drunk than cheaper and arguably tastier drinks made with traditional spirits (again, see: jungle juice.)

It’s only a matter of time before Phusion’s new hard seltzer hits shelves, which means that it’s only a matter of time before alarmists begin calling for the ban of a product that is no more or less dangerous than any other alcoholic beverage on the market. People will not be worse off for having the option to purchase a stronger seltzer, and people will ultimately be better off for having the choice to do what they want with their bodies. So it’s only right to call out the hysteria around Four Loko’s new release for what it is: absolutely loco.