Four Loko: A Dangerous Mix of Alcohol and Caffeine in a Can

We taste-tested the caffeine-spiked malt liquor drink that has sent dozens of college kids to the ER

I walked into the deli on my street corner toward the back of the store, where they keep the beer. Since I often see people hanging out on the street drinking “forties,” I figured this place was a sure bet. In my neighborhood, people hang out at these stores, shooting the breeze with the owner and often buying handfuls of scratch-off tickets at a time. Two of these fixtures -- big, tough-looking men -- were blocking access to the cooler.

“Hey, mama. What are you looking for?” one of them asked.

“That energy drink, Four Loko.”

“You ever try that?” I shook my head. “That sh*t is strong. You better watch out. It’ll mess you up,” said his friend.

I didn’t ask if he knew from experience or tell him that’s why I was buying it. For those who haven’t read about it in the news, Four Loko is a caffeinated, alcoholic energy drink that’s come under serious scrutiny after students at two universities were hospitalized. At a Central Washington University off-campus party, police found several students passed out and rushed nine of them to the hospital in what they were calling a mass overdose. Two dozen more were sickened and hospitalized at Ramapo College in New Jersey. Both colleges have since banned the beverage that’s been dubbed “blackout in a can.” It’s now been banned in Michigan, Washington, Utah and Oklahoma. New York Senator Chuck Shumer is pushing for a ban in his state, citing the case of an 18-year-old Long Island girl who died after drinking Four Loko.

When you read the stats on what’s inside one can of the innocuous-looking beverage, it’s easy to see how it might get its name. Sold in 23.5-ounce cans, one container of Four Loko is the equivalent of about six cans of beer mixed with two cups of coffee. While most beers average four percent alcohol, Four Loko has 12 percent. And at $2.50 a pop, it’s easy to see why Four Loko is so popular with the college set, many of whom are just looking for a quick, cheap buzz.

Most students probably don’t realize that mixing caffeinated energy drinks with alcohol can up their risk of drinking-related injuries. According to a study at Wake Forest University, the caffeine allows you to drink more and for longer periods of time, because the stimulant distorts your perception of how drunk you are. As a result, people who get hopped up on caffeine and alcohol are twice as likely to be hurt or injured, require medical attention, ride with a drunk driver and be taken advantage of sexually.

Maybe that sounds like no big thing to college kids whose extracurricular activities revolve around risk-taking, but for this over-30 set, the lure just isn’t the same. When I asked my girlfriends to sample the drink with me, all of them bowed out, citing caffeine jitters and lack of sleep as their concerns. So I ended up sipping a can of Four Loko alone in my apartment on a Friday night. I probably should have alerted a friend -- a sort of blackout buddy, if you will -- so people would know to come looking for me if I failed to materialize for dinner.

The cans of Four Loko are decorated in Technicolor camoflague, which to my mind is a great subliminal message to underage drinkers. To adults who have never heard of the drink, Four Loko can easily be mistaken for a nonalcoholic energy drink. As one student interviewed on the news put it, “They are discreet.”

The flavor I tried, fruit punch, was putrid. I gagged on the first sip. It tasted exactly like cherry cough syrup, which I have been unable to tolerate since spitting it out on my mom’s kitchen curtains at the age of five. On the plus side, throwing up from the taste might save me from alcohol and caffeine poisoning. The second sip was as bad as the first, but three or four sips later, I could swallow it without retching. By the time I had taken ten sips, I was already feeling warm and tingly, which makes everything go down more easily. Still, the cloying syrupy sweetness, which I’m sure kids without the palate for alcohol appreciate, was making my throat ache. And, call me an old lady, but it was also starting to give me a case of acid reflux, which reminded my why I gave up drinking Mike’s Hard Lemonade in my 20s. With more than three-quarters left, I put the can of Four Loko aside. I had dinner plans for later that night and didn’t want to burn a hole in my stomach or show up slurring. Besides, I love a good glass of wine with dinner and did not want to waste any more alcohol (or calories -- 660 per can!) on this hopped-up Kool-Aid.

When my friend Linda came over to pick me up, she saw the can sitting on my counter. “Can I try a sip?” she asked. “Oh, wow,” she said, shaking off the saccharine sucker punch. “I can see why kids would drink this. It doesn’t even taste like alcohol.”

And therein lies the problem. Hard liquor tastes like alcohol, and it’s usually consumed in small1.5-ounce servings. Four Loko tastes like liquid candy and each individual can -- which is definitely not meant to be shared -- is nearly the equivalent of a six-pack. Perhaps if it were sold in nip-sized bottles for the same price, college kids would at least have a better sense of how many servings of alcohol they’re putting back, and stop drinking before they pass out. Or perhaps the FDA will simply choose to ban it. The federal agency is currently investigating whether caffeinated alcoholic energy drinks are safe, and has asked manufacturers of such beverages to supply that evidence.

In the meantime, local businesses and politicians alike are taking matters into their own hands. One supermarket chain in the Seattle area has pulled it from their shelves and a New York City councilman is proposing a city-wide ban. Whether it stays on the market or not, let’s hope news of college kids getting sick from Four Loko will help keep others from following suit.

What’s your take? Should alcoholic energy drinks be pulled from the market? Chime in below.

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