Now that Four Loko and other alcoholic energy drinks have been pretty much outlawed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and two more federal agencies because of their associated health and safety risks, the question remains: what will happen to stock already on the shelves?
The four companies that the FDA warned have already told the agency either that they’ve ceased production, or that all of their stock will be off store shelves by Dec. 13. (The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) also posted an FAQ on how it’s working in concert with the FDA on the issue.)
According to information compiled by James F. Mosher and Raimee Eck of Alcohol Policy Consultations (PDF), action has now been taken in 25 states toward banning or limiting the availability of alcoholic energy drinks. Ten states have banned or placed a moratorium on sales. Five more — Arkansas, Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania — are considering bans. Others have asked retailers or distributors to quit selling the drinks, and in some cases, distributors and retailers have acted on their own to curtail sales.
Less has happened at the local level to date. In 2009, Thousand Oaks, CA passed an ordinance requiring that retailers post warning signs. In the past two months, two colleges and two universities in four states banned the drinks; San Francisco, CA asked retailers to stop selling the drinks; and Chicago, IL and Somerville, MA both proposed bans.
Mosher predicted that youth would buy up large quantities of the drinks if states and local communities didn’t act fast.
Turns out Mosher was right on the money, according to a story in The Washington Post. The story even quoted a 28-year-old who hadn’t tried the drinks and planned to attend a last “Four Loko” party, to see what she had missed out on.
Reading the Washington Post story shows how important it is to take the next step and change the cultural norms around acceptable levels of social drinking.
For example, 21-year-old Joey Maier, a student at American University, described the FDA’s action against Four Loko as the “end of an era.” Tellingly, he added, “This was the drink of the semester.” In other words, there’s more where that came from.
To take another example, someone posted a YouTube video in response to the FDA ban that shows people how to make their own version of Four Loko at home. Whoever made it felt the need to add a qualifier: “We are not liable for any injuries or deaths sustained from this Four Loko homebrew recipe.”
But they posted the video anyway. Why?
Because, I suspect, those who posted it don’t really believe that drinking is harmful, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says binge drinking is linked to nearly 40,000 alcohol-related deaths a year.
Or perhaps we assume that individual drinkers are responsible for all the deaths, injuries, and date rapes related to drinking. If so, we fail to acknowledge the enormous cultural pressure — from advertising and peers — to drink, and drink a lot. Alcohol companies urge us (often in tiny print) to “drink responsibly,” but when we’re at a party, no company representative is there to help us figure out when enough is enough. Nor are our peers providing any useful guidance, if that YouTube video is anything to go by.
Of course, the irony is that we’re talking about a product that, when consumed, impairs our judgment, making it less likely we’ll be “responsible” and much more likely we’ll do stupid things — which is, for some drinkers, often the goal of drinking in the first place.
In the absence of any meaningful effort to counter the cultural pressure to binge drink, the government — which is responsible for keeping us and our loved ones safe — has to do things like ban drink combinations that appear, based on research and actual experience, to be unsafe as marketed.
One can argue the merits of any specific action it takes, but government and policymakers will have to keep on setting occasional limits on our thirst for alcohol until we come to our senses about drinking.
This is not the same thing as saying that people shouldn’t drink socially. Nor is a limited ban, like the FDA’s ruling on the safety of adding caffeine to mass-produced drinks — based on research — tantamount to proposing a return of Prohibition. (Not that Prohibition is a remote possibility. No American politician who wants to get elected is seriously going to suggest putting alcohol companies and bars out of business, or damaging the economic livelihoods attached to grocery stores or the restaurant industry.)
But it is a wake-up call to face up to the risks of binge drinking, which, by all accounts, is what Four Loko — sometimes dubbed “blackout in a can” — was used for.