Booze News

Bad News in a Can

Drunk and wired is no way to go through life

By John Chandler November 12, 2010

A malt beverage available in a variety of flavors, Four Loko combines alcohol with stimulants like caffeine, guarana, and taurine—a mix that Harvard health officials and other doctors deem hazardous.

Known as "blackout in a can" for its combination of caffeine and 12 percent alcohol, Four Loko is one of 55 drinks that the state [Michigan] banned Thursday.

Sen. Chuck Schumer is calling on the New York State Liquor Authority to ban the drink known affectionately among some as "Blackout-in-a-can"—a cocktail of caffeine and malt liquor known as Four Loko.

The first I heard about Four Loko, a malt liquor that’s cunningly crammed full of stimulants, was when nine students at Central Washington University went to the hospital after chugging a bunch of the stuff at an off-campus party in early October. A little sleuthing on my part revealed that this wasn’t an isolated incident. At Ramapo College in New Jersey, 23 students went to the hospital after a Four Loko binge, and four students from New York’s Skidmore College ended up in the ER after a Loko-fied Halloween party. Apparently it’s all the rage on campuses—just like raccoon coats, swallowing goldfish, and stuffing phone booths.

I’ve only tried malt liquor energy drinks on two occasions: several Halloweens ago, someone brought a 12-pack of Liquid Charge to a friend’s party and I downed a couple in order to horrify my fellow revelers (it was Halloween, after all). Over a year later, at the same friend’s birthday party, we discovered she still had several Liquid Charges left (go figure) so I repeated the feat. My judgment, in both instances, was severely impaired (i.e., drunk party clown showing off his brazen idiocy).

I didn’t notice any gruesome side effects (other than a vicious hangover), but apparently Liquid Charge (6.9 percent alcohol in a 16 ounce can) is weak tea compared to the mighty Four Loko which boasts a 12 percent alcohol kick that comes in a hefty 23.5 ounce can along with enough caffeine, guarana, and taurine to have you dancing the mambo till the next election. A Harvard report compared it to six servings of alcohol and five cups of coffee, but that estimate was at the high end of the spectrum from the accounts that I read.

Washington state has already banned Four Loko and a bunch of related products, and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission is mulling over a similar course of action. In the meantime, I ambled over to the local Skeezy Mart and bought a can of Four Loko for $2.75. I haven’t tried it yet. I’m still screwing up the courage.

Probably the thing that surprised me the most about Four Loko is that it comes in nine "delicious" flavors (I opted for Lemon Lime, although Fruit Punch and Grape were both tempting) and that it looks exactly like an energy drink. But if you search carefully enough, the helpful message "contains alcohol" is visible around the top of the can. Ah, corporate responsibility at its finest.

I was recently asked about my opinion on the subject, so here goes. Frankly, I can’t imagine vast numbers of our readership are going to be even momentarily intrigued by this crass swill. Surveys reveal Portland Monthly readers to be highly educated, intelligent, and employed. As for me, I’ve slugged down some truly vile stuff in my time. Fortified wine, 40-ouncers of Olde English, rotgut booze, even some homemade white lightning served in an old mayo jar. Not smart, but the path to wisdom is fraught with such pits and snares.

I totally understand the allure of combining the heightened sense of well being that comes from booze, with the desire to be reasonably alert throughout the duration of a party. The longer you can remain clever (and perpendicular) at a social event, the better chance you have of winning friends and influencing people. "Say, let’s invite John Chandler to our next party. He was on his feet telling funny stories about his roommates till the wee hours. And he drank all the rum! What a guy!" It’s a fine line to try and walk, one that I imagine would appeal to a college student looking for a hook-up or just trying to fit in with the "in" crowd. I recall from my distant college days, my own need to overcome social anxiety and to appear calm, cool, and collected. Most of the time it didn’t work and at least once I ended up hurling all over the back seat of a girl’s Volkswagen. Needless to say, that relationship never got off the ground.

But then I never had to contend with a drink that hides the depressant effects of alcohol with waves of newfound energy, either. One report said that Four Loko was like stepping on the gas and putting on the breaks at the same time. That can’t be good. I have little doubt that the OLCC will climb aboard and ban this nasty stuff and that campuses will once again be safe from the effects of binge drinking. That is, until bored students or corporate overlords invent something else that seems fun and dangerous. Remember, consume responsibly—which is a message you won’t find on a can of Four Loko. Bottom line: Anytime judgment and motor skills are out the window, combined with lots and lots of energy, is a recipe for disaster. Nothing good can possibly come of it.

This topic is now open for discussion: Yes, we have free will and no one is forcing this junk on us. Unfortunately, we as a people ain’t the brightest bulbs in the chandelier—especially when it comes to leisure time. Here’s a comical video on the subject.

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