Too Much Fun: Caffeinated Alcoholic Drinks Draw the Reds' Wrath for Candor in Advertising

By Beato, Greg | Reason, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Too Much Fun: Caffeinated Alcoholic Drinks Draw the Reds' Wrath for Candor in Advertising


Beato, Greg, Reason


There's something about the metallic pink shimmer of Watermelon Four Loko that immediately sends a scissoring pain to your temple. As for its bouquet, imagine a Jolly Rancher hard candy drowned in a vat of Olde English 800, with perhaps a note or two of off-brand ant poison thrown in for good measure. This may be the first alcoholic beverage that can give you a hangover before you've even taken a sip.

Get past these shortcomings, though, and Watermelon Four Loko is a party in a can. At 12 percent alcohol by volume, one 23.5-ounce tall boy can legally intoxicate 223 pounds of humanity if consumed in an hour or less. For just $2.99, it also delivers unspecified amounts of caffeine, taurine, guarana, and FD&C Red #40. "I consistently blackout when we pregame with Four," enthuses one happy customer on the Facebook page of Phusion Projects, the company that produces Four Loko. "Thanks for reminding me what my vomit looks like," exclaims another.

In November 2009, the Food and Drug

Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter to Phusion and 26 other brewers and distillers whose products are characterized by the "intentional addition of caffeine" (as opposed to alcoholic beverages that are flavored with coffee). Turns out the agency never explicitly approved the stimulant as an additive to any food product other than "cola-type beverages." Unless the manufacturers of Four Loko and similar products can prove that adding caffeine to alcohol is "generally recognized as safe," the FDA may force them to remove their products from the marketplace. (Energy drinks, on the other hand, are considered "dietary supplements" rather than "food," and are regulated under a different law.)

Critics charge that mixing caffeine with alcohol causes people to underestimate how intoxicated they are. In 2007 Mary Claire O'Brien, a physician at Wake Forest University, surveyed approximately 4,000 college students at 10 universities in North Carolina. She concluded that 24 percent of students who drink alcohol these clays combine it with energy drinks, and these students are twice as likely to hurt themselves while drinking as students who stick to alcohol alone. "It's bad enough to be drunk, but to be an awake drunk? Now you're really in trouble," she says. "There's a reason why we pass out when we drink too much."

It's not just the presence of caffeine in beverages like Four Loko that has these products under fire. The FDA worries that caffeinated alcohol is increasingly popular among college students. The Marin Institute, a California-based temperance organization, believes that some brewers and distillers are deliberately trying to attract "young people" by making their beverages resemble non-alcoholic energy drinks. Richard Blumenthal, attorney general for the state of Connecticut, told the Chicago Tribune that the makers of Four Loko and a similar product called Joose are using misleading tactics to imply that it's possible to fill up on either product without becoming impaired. To these critics, caffeinated alcohol isn't just a potential health threat; it's a marketing threat as well.

Companies like Phusion Projects and United

Beverages, which manufactures Joose, are injecting a substance even more forbidden than caffeine into the world of alcohol marketing: candor. They operate as if hedonistic 21-year-olds may in fact have an interest in alcohol, and not just for purposes of drinking responsibly. Phusion, which was founded in 2006 by three friends who met at Ohio State University, invites its customers to submit their "hottest Four party pictures" to the company's website. It sponsors beer pong tournaments. It posts uncensored testimonials like those cited above on its Facebook page.

Traditionally, the alcohol industry takes a far more sober, euphemistic approach to marketing. Housewives drunk on 100-proof laundry detergent cavort with more out-of-control abandon than the de facto teetotalers who populate our beer and liquor commercials, and brewers and distillers treat their products like medications that must be used only as directed. …

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