Alchohol plus caffeine: a brewing controversy over Four Loko and other "alcopops"

"Alcopops" are sweet, carbonated, and easy to drink, alcoholic beverages (think Zima, Mike's Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice, etc.) that are known gateway beverages for teens and young-adults who may not like the taste of beer, wine, or hard-liquor (see full article here). Teens' preference for these types of beverages is proven, but untested and potentially dangerous off-shoots of the "alcopop" concept have recently emerged to much popularity and controversy.

The booming energy drink market, with its aggressive marketing to teens and young adults, primed the pump for producers of new "alcohol plus energy" drinks. The "energy" in these products comes in the form of the caffeine, taurine, and guarana triumvirate popularized over a decade ago by Red Bull.

What makes these products potentially dangerous, as evidenced by a recent Four Loko fueled mass hospitalization, is their large size (typically 20+ ounces), cheap price (~$2.50 per can), higher-than-beer alcohol content (as much as 12.5%), and added caffeine in quantities equivalent to several cups of coffee. By combining a stimulant with alcohol, the inebriating effects of the alcohol are delayed, until the caffeine wears off and the full effects are felt, leading to the slang term "blackout in a can".

While vacationing in South Florida a few weeks ago, I personally witnessed a group of teenagers at a beach-side pavilion nonchalantly drinking from over-sized cans of Joose. The appearance of these beverages is almost indiscernible from that of a non-alcoholic energy drink like Monster or Rockstar. While a bottle of beer is easy to spot, these drinks can be consumed right under the noses of unaware adults; a benefit not lost to any under-age drinker.

I believe adults have the right to choose whether or not they want to consume high calorie, alcoholic, caffeinated beverages if they so choose, so I don't think that these products should be banned outright, however, keeping them out of the hands (and stomachs) of kids clearly makes sense. Legislation that requires clearer labeling (alcoholic beverages are exempt from the labeling laws that apply to regular drinks) and stricter penalties for selling to minors may need to be considered.


Update: It looks like the brouhaha over Four Loko and other "alcopops" has gone all the way up to the FDA.  According to a release from the office of Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), a FDA ruling "should be the nail in the coffin of these dangerous toxic drinks."

States such as New York, Oklahoma, Utah, Michigan,and Washington have already taken action by banning the drinks outright or by pressuring distributors to discontinue the products.

The owners of Four Loko have already responded with their own press release.  The drink will now be caffeine free.

The FDA ruling, issued November 17 2010, states that beverages such as Four Loko "do not meet legal standards for safety."  Additionally, the FTC added that the marketing used to sell these beverages may be deceptive or unfair due to their similarity to non-alchoholic energy drinks such as Monster or Rockstar.
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About Unknown

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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