Four Loko Madness

By Eileen McNamara | Boston Magazine |

IT HAS BEEN A BUSY FEW WEEKS at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Thirty-two years after the painkiller propoxyphene was first linked to thousands of fatal heart attacks and accidental overdoses, the FDA finally got around to banning it. Half a century after the surgeon general first warned of the lethal consequences of smoking, the agency proposed scary new warning labels on cigarettes, a federally subsidized product that causes one in five deaths in the United States.

But before you conclude that oversight of the public’s health is anemic and slow-witted, consider the speed with which the FDA ordered makers of alcoholic energy drinks to remove caffeine from their products. True, you can still order a Red Bull and vodka at the corner bar (or mix them together in the privacy of your dorm room), but you can no longer buy the high-octane combination of stimulant and intoxicant at the local convenience store. Banned in Boston — and everywhere else.

There is little doubt that Boston — the ultimate college town — and the culture at large will be better off without buzz-craving students swilling 23.5-ounce cans of biliously colored, faintly fruity malt liquors amped up with caffeine and 12 percent alcohol. What the culture will not be as a result of the furious nannying of the FDA is free of binge drinking. That would require policies that work, not knees that jerk.

FOUR LOKO, THE MOST POPULAR of the banned drinks, is not some kind of “witch’s brew,” as Connecticut Senator-elect Richard Blumenthal contends. It is, however, an effective alcohol-delivery system, one marketed specifically to college-age drinkers. Created by three Ohio State University grads in 2008, Four Loko is an efficient means of pregaming — the process of getting hammered, quickly, before the big game or dance. What used to take a case of beer to accomplish now takes only a few cans (or so) of Four Loko.

Altering the drink’s formula will keep caffeine from masking the inebriating effects of the alcohol. But it will do nothing to defeat the real problem — excessive, clandestine drinking on college campuses. A better solution? Lower the drinking age.

Now cue the howls from Mothers Against Drunk Driving!

It has been impossible to have a rational debate on the drinking age in this country since 1984, when, at the height of the campaign by MADD to keep drunks out of the driver’s seat, Washington threatened to cut federal highway funds to any state that did not adopt 21 as the legal drinking age. Everyone quickly fell in line.

Yet even today — long after Americans have embraced designated drivers and tougher penalties for driving while intoxicated — any attempt to revisit the drinking age still runs head-long into Puritanical posturing about demon rum, and parental schizophrenia about the lives their young-adult children actually lead. If Social Security is the third rail of American politics, underage drinking is the elephant in the dorm room. Everyone acknowledges the problem. Few are willing to brave the fury of MADD and its minions by pointing out the obvious: that allowing younger people to drink in the open gives adults the chance to model responsible consumption behaviors.

  • kathy

    most parents of college age kids would heartily agree with this column. Allowing kids to
    Earn to handle alcohol while still reporting in to the family could lead to more responsible behavior. Showing young people that alcohol is a beverage rather than only a drug might help many kids avoid serious negative consequences of stealth binge drinking.