"Blackout In A Can": Four Loko by the Numbers

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Everyone right now is going nuts over Four Loko--the caffeinated and chemically-juiced alcoholic malt beverage that was at least one of the causes for all the barfing, blackouts and ambulance rides that marked the end of the October 8 party in Roslyn at which several Central Washington University students ended up drinking themselves rather close to death. Nine of them ended up getting transported to the hospital. And when tests were run on the partygoers, blood-alcohol contents ranged from the reasonably wrecked (.12%) to the near-lethal (.35%, which, on the charts, is just tickling the potentially deadly limit of .40%).

Four Loko was not the only beverage available at the party. While the initial fear was that these kids had been slipped roofies, were mixing energy booze with drugs or, for all anyone knew, snorting powdered unicorn horn, toxicology reports came back clean of all drugs and unicorn byproducts. Alcohol was all that was in their systems, but "alcohol" is a big category. There was beer at the party. Hard liquor, too. It was a college party, after all, and college kids (particularly underage college kids) are not exactly known for their discriminating tastes in fucker-uppers.

Still, blame for the disaster at the Roslyn party has been laid squarely on Four Loko for a few of different reasons: It was there, it is powerful, it is cheap and it is popular among those for whom the first three reasons are of paramount importance. So let's take a look at the stuff by the numbers and see what all the fuss is about.

1) It was there

Tough to argue with this one. Cle Elum Police Chief Scott Ferguson stated that the students were drinking the stuff, and he ought to know since his cops were in charge of cleaning up the mess. He also said that some of the ... how should I say this? Some of the less wise among the student body were spiking their Four Loko with rum and vodka, which is just nine different kinds of stupid.

But availability is a real concern among underage drinkers. I mean, seriously. Do you think that anyone with a choice would be shotgunning this shit?

2) It is cheap

Three bucks a can, give or take. And that's right in the sweet spot of a bunch of college freshmen who would normally be blowing all their disposable income on weed, burritos and World of Warcraft subscriptions.

3) It is powerful

Here's where things get a little bit dicey. At its most simple, Four Loko is a caffeinated alcoholic beverage--a stimulant and a depressant all in one can. The caffeine (and taurine and guarana) get you up and mitigate the immediate effects of the alcohol--making the drinker feel less drunk than he or she really is. And while the stimulants are all up in your forebrain messing with you, the alcohol is doing its work behind the scenes, doing all the stuff that alcohol traditionally does: making you better looking, funnier, more relaxed and a better dancer. Unfortunately, when the stimulants wear off, the alcohol is still there. Which is generally when the puking and blacking-out starts.

In a statement released today regarding the events in Roslyn, the makers of Four Loko said the following:

"The unacceptable incident at Central Washington University, which appears to have involved hard liquor, such as vodka and rum, beer, our products, and possibly illicit substances, is precisely why we go to great lengths to ensure our products are not sold to underage consumers and are not abused. As a company, we do all we can to ensure that our products are consumed safely and responsibly.

Caffeinated alcoholic beverages, like Four Loko, have become popular products nationwide. Widespread media coverage of these beverages, and incidents in which they've been abused and used illegally, have raised questions about them and about their place in society."

Why yes, they certainly have. And does the company have a response?

They do:

"People have safely enjoyed mixing alcohol and caffeine products for years in their homes, and in restaurants and bars. Having coffee after a meal with wine, or consuming rum and cola, an Irish coffee or a Red Bull and vodka are all popular practices. Our products contain less alcohol than an average rum and cola, less alcohol and caffeine than an average Red Bull and vodka, and is comparable to having coffee after a meal with a couple glasses of wine."

Read that carefully. Take note of the examples given. A rum and coke. Coffee and a couple glasses of wine. That's what Phusion Projects is saying.

Only here's the thing: A single Four Loko contains 12% alcohol by volume. So does a rum and coke, by volume. And that glass of wine, too. Remember that old calculation from junior high health class about a shot of liquor, a glass of wine and one beer all being roughly similar in effect despite the fact that the shot is just 1.5 ounces, the beer 12 ounces and the glass of wine 8 ounces? Right. That's the core of the "by volume" calculation.

Only hold on. That Four Loko you're tipping? It's about 24 ounces--both double the volume and more than double the abv of those Nattie Lights you were putting away last weekend. So one Four Loko is roughly equivalent to just under five beers. So how that statement from Phusion Projects should've read is more like:

"People with very little concern for their health or safety have safely enjoyed mixing lots of alcohol and a hell-broth of stimulant chemicals products for years in their homes, and in restaurants and bars. Having coffee spiked with Amazonian crazy berries and chemicals mimicking the testicular secretions of bulls after a meal with a bottle of wine, or consuming several rum and colas, four Irish coffees or a bucket of Red Bull and vodka are all popular practices among alcoholics, party girls or those angry at their own livers."

4) It is popular

Four Loko is popular precisely because of all the above reasons. When your primary concern is getting maximally drunk for minimal cash, Four Loko fits the bill. You wanna be wrecked and really awake at the same time but can't afford cocaine? Four Loko is your magic elixir. Back in the day--long before Four Loko, when I was still a broke young chef making the rounds--me and my crews drank Texas Speedballs for the same reason: two cups of cheap drip coffee with a beer chaser, as immortalized in the song "Texas Speedball" by The American Fuse. This was cheap, available and potent when repeated throughout the night. All those schnapps drinks out there? The Polynesian cocktails full of fruit juice and sugar? Four Loko (with its rainbow of nauseating flavors like watermelon and blue raspberry) is also scoring off that segment of the market which wants to be drunk but can't stomach the taste of alcohol--a share that generally includes most of the under-age, college-level amateur drinkers and lots of young women.

This, actually, is my major problem with Four Loko: not that it caused this Roslyn party fail (god knows that Boone's Farm, jungle juice, Everclear and cases of MGD cans have been responsible for far worse catastrophies in the days before cans of chemically synthesized taurine and malt liquor) and not it's cheapness or potency. My issue is that anyone would drink the stuff at all. That anyone, when staring down a sixer of beer and a can of lemon-lime nut-juice-and-ethanol, would actually go for the Four Loko boggles my mind.

It's not that I expect young party folk to have much taste when it comes to their poison of choice (after all, someone out there is drinking all that Jager and Red Bull), but having a little bit of class isn't out of the question. And those with any at all should know to just leave the alcopops alone.

Which, when these things start getting banned at the federal level, may quickly become a moot point. Attorney General Rob McKenna is looking at taking drinks like Four Loko up before the FDA, and the stuff has already been banned on campuses from Florida to New Jersey to Washington State.

So it looks like everyone is going to be back to snorting powdered unicorn horn before long.

 
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