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Four Loko: Not Your Daddy’s State-Approved Vice

Unlike big tobacco or beer, wine and liquor, the caffeinated alcoholic drink was undone by a lack of political clout

By Sarah Laskow
Friday, November 19th, 2010
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Four Loko

There’s a reason why Sen. Chuck Schumer has succeeded in his campaign to ban Four Loko. Those who disapprove of the drink have political clout. Those who like it, don’t.

Schumer, Gov. David Paterson, and other lawmakers are ostensibly worried about the danger Four Loko and its ilk pose to society at large, and to youth in particular. But the government tolerates scores of vices detrimental to public health: cigarettes, Red Bull & vodka, and McDonald’s are arguably just as bad as Four Loko for the people who consume them. Schumer’s not exactly against the consumption of alcohol, either: He receives more money from the beer, wine and liquor industry than any other senator, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But while powerful interests back tobacco and beef products, the constituencies for caffeinated alcoholic beverages are less savvy.

To some extent, fans of Four Loko only have themselves to blame for the impending ban. Few voters of any age were stoked about voting in this past election. (New York came in dead last on voter turnout.) But across the country, young voters in particular failed to show up at the polls.

After 2008, it was an open question whether young people’s enthusiasm for politics would endure. Now we know the answer: However much they like Obama, young people can’t be depended on for votes in Senate or House races. And if you don’t vote, you don’t get political leaders who are concerned about pissing you off. Smart politicians like Chuck Schumer can ignore the interests of college kids and 20-somethings: It’s their parents who keep him in office.

The manufacturers of drinks like Four Loko aren’t the most politically powerful bunch, either. The big brewing companies, like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, caved early on caffeinated alcoholic drinks, agreeing in 2008 to forgo that line of business. And Phusion Products, which makes Four Loko, has only recently jumped into the lobbying business. The company hired a DC lobbyist in August and ponied up $50,000 in the last quarter for lobbying related to “FDA issues related to infusion of caffeinated alcoholic beverages.” (Anheuser-Busch also listed caffeinated alcoholic beverages as a concern in a recent lobbying report.)

Politicians have nothing to lose by crusading against this new, fruit-flavored evil, then. But is a ban really the best way to solve the problem? In New York, the caffeinated version of Four Loko stops shipping today; by Dec. 10, distributors will have delivered their last loads to retailers. Those who love it most are surely stocking up as quickly as they can. (After MillerCoors took caffeine out of the recipe for Sparks, a similar, orange-flavored drink, one young man of my acquaintance hoarded so many cases of the stuff that he could still offer it to friends months after it went off the market.) Plus, it’s not so hard to concoct a home-made version of Four Loko. Apparently, all you need is a handful of jolly ranchers, a caffeine pill, malt liquor, a can of sprite and a can of Monster energy drink.