Four Loko Madness

How do you get a sleepy federal agency to spring into full regulatory action? Terrify parents about the alcoholic energy-drink craze that’s sweeping college campuses.

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

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.

A group of college and university presidents learned what can happen two years ago when they launched the Amethyst Initiative, a modest proposal that takes its name from the gemstone thought by the ancient Greeks to ward off intoxication. No sooner had administrators signed on to encourage a fresh discussion of the drinking age than Laura Dean-Mooney, the president of MADD, urged supporters to call the signers and to “think twice before sending their teens to these colleges or any others that have waved the white flag on underage- and binge-drinking policies.”

The 135 signatories to the Amethyst Initiative represent dozens of schools in New England, including Tufts, Mount Holyoke, Emerson, Smith, Holy Cross, and the University of Massachusetts, and they know what the students know — that the war on underage drinking was lost long ago. Older students buy booze for younger classmates, or underage students buy it for themselves with fake IDs. Products like Four Loko earn millions in profits despite a bargain price (less than $3 a can) because students consume copious amounts in private settings. Then they venture out to public functions where drinking is prohibited.

The consequences? A recent analysis by the Boston Public Health Commission found that nearly 1,000 college-age students landed in one of the city’s emergency rooms in the past two years because of an alcohol-related problem. The report did not specify the precise reasons for the visits or the kind of alcohol consumed by those patients, but news accounts uniformly linked the report to Four Loko anyway. It fit the story line, even if that narrative was the very definition of missing the forest for the trees.

Here’s the forest: College students drink. Pretending they don’t — wishing they wouldn’t — is the kind of magical thinking that discourages the open dialogue parents and educators claim to value. We are asking young people to be sneaks and then expressing shock and outrage when they are.

How does it not make more sense to drag drinking out of the shadows and into the light of adult supervision, to teach college students that alcohol can be enjoyed in moderation, and, strangely, even in flavors not designed to taste like watermelon or bubblegum? The furtive nature of college drinking is what makes it both dangerous and antithetical to the very mission of higher education, which demands that students engage, not avoid, life’s thorniest issues. We diminish these young adults, and ourselves, when we project with our silence the message that this problem is beyond solution.

Anyone reading a campus police blotter should have been alarmed long before the Four Loko hysteria about the dangers of covert drinking by college kids. Stumbles down stairwells. Broken limbs. Trips to the emergency room. Sexual assaults. It’s all there, week after numbing week, in campus publications across Boston and around the country. Banning Four Loko isn’t a solution. It’s an act of mass denial, fueled by dumb media coverage.

Consider the statistic from a 2005 federal report highlighted by the Centers for Disease Control: About 90 percent of alcohol consumption by those under the age of 21 in the United States is in the form of binge drinking. Will lowering the drinking age change that? Not likely. But it would be a start.

We need a middle path. Choose Responsibility, founded by John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College, has proposed a sensible compromise between the status quo and a uniform reduction of the drinking age to 18 that should appeal to the states’ rights absolutists now in the political ascendancy.

States should adopt mandatory alcohol education programs that advocate neither abstinence nor consumption. Passing such a course would be a prerequisite for a license to purchase and consume alcohol. Violation of state alcohol laws would be cause for that license to be suspended or revoked.

For any such change to work, the federal government would have to acknowledge that the states have responded appropriately and toughened drunk-driving laws in the past 27 years. It is time to remove the threat that any reduction in the drinking age, no matter how provisional, will result in a state losing millions in federal highway funds. The Vermont Senate passed a resolution last spring calling on Washington to do just that, in the hopes that lawmakers could at least begin to debate the merits of a lower drinking age.But having this conversation at all has been made impossible by the influence of MADD, an organization so inflexible that even its founder, Candace Lightner, a mother who lost her daughter to a drunk driver, resigned to protest the organization’s shift in focus from preventing drunk driving to what she called a “neo-prohibitionist” stance.

Last September, when Republican Congressman Jack Kingston of Georgia introduced legislation to allow restaurants and bars on military bases to serve soldiers and sailors younger than 21, he said that military leaders support his proposal but are too cowed by MADD to advocate for it openly.

Meanwhile, with Four Loko at last banished from our city, a fresh opportunity looms for political grandstanding and indignant calls for protection of the public health. Whipped cream infused with 30-proof alcohol landed on Boston liquor store shelves this holiday season. Sold under the brand name Cream, it comes in six flavors and requires no refrigeration. The product’s website reports that each canister contains 26 shots, and Cream is especially tasty on Jell-O shots or “straight up” from the can.

Cue the hysteria!