Alcohol has been legal to buy, sell, and consume in the US since the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933. Caffeine has never been illegal in the US, and millions of people consume it in soft drinks, coffee, and tea every day. But what happens when you put alcohol and caffeine together? The manufacturers incur the wrath of the nanny state:
Federal agencies moved aggressively Wednesday to eliminate from the market the potent alcoholic “energy” drinks spiked with caffeine that have become wildly popular on college campuses in recent years.
In letters to four companies, the Food and Drug Administration said it had concluded that adding caffeine to alcohol created “adulterated” products that were unsafe and illegal. If the companies do not take action within 15 days, the FDA could begin seizing the products or seek a court order barring companies from continuing to sell the products.
Simultaneously, Treasury Department officials announced that, based on the FDA’s conclusion, the companies would be told that the products had been mislabeled and were, therefore, illegal to be shipped. And the Federal Trade Commission informed the same four firms that marketing their seven products risked violating federal law.
The drinks, sometimes called a “blackout in a can,” contain high levels of alcohol and caffeine. The mixture creates a state of “wide-awake drunk” that makes it difficult for people to realize how intoxicated they are and enables them to consume far more alcohol than they otherwise would without passing out, officials said. That puts them at increased risk for alcohol poisoning, engaging in risky behavior such as driving drunk, and committing or being the victims of sexual assaults, they said. Consuming one can of Four Loko – the most popular product – has been compared to drinking five cans of beer and a cup of coffee.
The latest hysteria-in-a-beer-can comes from stories of college students binging on Four Loko and having to get treated for alcohol poisoning. That is news — except for the fact that college students occasionally binge on non-caffeinated alcohol and do die of alcohol poisoning every year. Under this reasoning, we should repeal that 21st Amendment that repealed Prohibition, too. (Of course, under that reasoning, we should also legalize marijuana since no one ever died from acute poisoning from overuse of it, but that’s a different nanny-state topic.)
The product is supposed to be deceptively potent, according to this story, because one can has the alcoholic content of five cans of beer. That’s actually an exaggeration; Four Loko has about three times the alcohol of beer at worst, ranging from 6-12% alcohol by volume (ABV). Beer averages somewhere between 4-6% ABV. Know what else has the alcoholic content of five cans of beer? Just about every distilled liquor one can find. Whiskey, on the other hand, goes between 40-55%. Bacardi 151 is 75% ABV, as “proof” is expressed as twice the ABV. Everclear, which is tremendously popular on college campuses, runs to about 95% ABV. An Irish coffee with two shots of whiskey would be at least as potent as a Four Loko, and yet we don’t see the FDA, FTC, and the BATF cracking down on restaurants who supply that wicked drink.
Note that the federal government isn’t giving producers guidance on compliance with some esoteric labeling guideline here. The Obama administration has pulled out every weapon it has to get products like Four Loko out of reach of the benighted consumers that supposedly can handle alcohol and caffeine separately but become unwitting pawns when they’re magically combined. They are targeting a beverage that, when consumed responsibly, isn’t dangerous at all, and when consumed irresponsibly is just as dangerous as other drinks that the FTC and the FDA let pass. The real reason the nanny-staters have targeted this class of beverages is because it combines two substances that nanny-staters don’t like in a new and novel form that appeals to consumers, which they cannot allow to stand.
I’m no fan of the concept of Four Loko; it sounds like a gimmicky, lousy product to me, and I rarely drink alcohol these days anyway (or much caffeine either, for that matter). But unless it’s unsafe to consume in any amount, it’s not the business of the FDA and FTC and the federal government in general to dictate whether I or anyone else can access the product.