Four Loko Hysteria Smacks of Classism

The makers of the malt liquor beverage are removing the caffeine from it in response to public pressure. But where's the outrage over Red Bull-and-vodka cocktails?

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AP

You're safer today, America! After being threatened with a shutdown by the Food and Drug Administration and after having their product banned by several states, the makers of the caffeinated "alcopop" Four Loko have agreed to remove all of the caffeine from their malt liquor beverage.

The hubbub began several weeks ago, when reports emerged of young people drinking Four Loko in mass quantities before crashing their cars or visiting emergency rooms. Despite the fact that drinking lots of booze has long been known to cause car accidents and hospital visits, Four Loko, a cheap, fruity, caffeinated malt liquor, was deemed particularly unsafe because of its high alcohol and caffeine content: Served in 23.5-ounce cans, Four Lokos are 12 percent alcohol and contain as much caffeine as a cup of coffee -- about 135 milligrams. Health professionals around the country started speaking out against the drink, and community leaders in low-income black neighborhoods like Chester, Pa., claimed Four Loko was "fueling the violence that we see in this community."

"This is one of the most dangerous new alcohol concoctions I have ever seen," a Pennsylvania doctor told the New York Times. "It's a recipe for disaster because your body's natural defense is to get sleepy and not want to drink, but in this case you're tricking the body with the caffeine."

It's a rational medical argument: It is stupid and unhealthy to mix stimulants and depressants. What isn't rational is that nobody seemed to mind booze mixed with caffeine when it was rich people who were drinking it.

While there are no statistics to quantify its popularity, anyone who has been in a bar in the past decade knows full well that Red Bull and vodka, mixed in a glass together, is one of the most guzzled cocktails of the 21st century. Pubs and clubs around the world sell it, and its simplicity makes it a hit at house parties, too.

What's interesting about the Red Bull cocktails isn't their popularity, though. What's interesting is that, like Four Loko, Red Bull cocktails are filled with caffeine and alcohol. In fact, all things being equal, they're filled with more caffeine and alcohol than any Four Loko ever was. Consider this: In one 8.3-ounce can of Red Bull, there are 80 milligrams of caffeine. If Red Bull cans were as big as Four Loko cans, they would contain 240 milligrams of caffeine, more than 100 milligrams more than is in a Four Loko. What's more, most vodkas are 80 proof, meaning they're at least 40 percent alcohol.

What this means is that, depending on the ingredient ratios, if one were to consume 23.5 ounces of Red Bull cocktails, one could very well be consuming far more caffeine and alcohol than there is in any single can of Four Loko.

With this in mind, it shouldn't surprise you that a Red Bull cocktail hysteria, similar to the current Four Loko hysteria, swept the world about a decade ago. In 2001, Sweden initiated a full-scale investigation into energy drinks when two women died after drinking Red Bull cocktails. And as early as 2006, ABC News was warning of the dangers of mixing energy drinks with alcohol. Norway, Uruguay and Denmark have all gone so far as to outlaw Red Bull, deeming it a health hazard unto itself.

Not America, though. Our nation not only allows Red Bull to flow in both supermarkets and bars, but it's turned a blind eye to Red Bull cocktail consumption while rabidly seizing on Four Loko, a much less potent brew.

Why? Who knows! Our government, like the media covering the Four Loko story, is often senseless and whimsical. But I'll wager that Four Loko's two-buck price tag, its availability in blighted urban neighborhoods and its perceived boorishness has done little to help its case with political types, who surely favor a nicely aged Macallan.