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Four Loko’s Problems Prompt A Feeding Frenzy

Callie Schweitzer |
November 24, 2010 | 8:29 p.m. PST


When the Food and Drug Administration deemed Four Loko and other caffeinated alcoholic beverages unsafe, Dennis Roberts saw a business opportunity.

The 23-year-old Roberts and two of his friends are the entrepreneurs behind LegalizeLoko.com, a site dedicated to selling “Legalize Loko” T-shirts and other merchandise.

The slogan plays on the popular American Apparel line “Legalize Gay” and “Legalize LA.”

Though all three Los Angeles residents have full-time jobs, Roberts said, “It’s a business, and we’re taking it very seriously.”

In addition to a big push on Facebook and Twitter, the company is taking a more traditional route with advertising on GoogleAd words. 

In the five days since launching the site, Roberts said more than 600 T-shirts have been sold and he and his associates have stashed away some 70 cans of Four Loko as a memorial to the drink’s demise.

Four Loko’s popularity appears to have skyrocketed since the FDA’s Nov. 17 ruling warning four manufacturers to remove their beverages from shelves or face legal action. A Google search of Four Loko yields more than 4.6 million results, from people researching for their taste tests, to Four Loko funeral parties and "Free Loko" campaign websites.

And some people, like University of Michigan senior Gordon Granger, are scrambling to stock up and sample the drink before it’s too late. Granger said he was eager to try the drink when Michigan became the first state to announce a ban on the beverages on Nov. 4. When the FDA declared the caffeinated alcoholic beverages unsafe, he knew he had to act fast. The result was not a good night.

“After one can I felt buzzed off my ass while having an epic caffeine high. Despite how much I enjoy those two things separately, together they were not fun,” he said.

“All I know is that instead of stumbling into my apartment at 2, I got in at 6.”

Just one day before the FDA deemed the beverages unsafe, the company producing Four Loko said it would drop the caffeine and two other ingredients to “reformulate” the beverage.

The FDA’s ruling concluded a year-long review of the drinks commonly known as a "blackout in a can." Last month, nine underage students at Central Washington University were hospitalized after they became "dangerously ill" from drinking "large amounts" of Four Loko at an off-campus party. More than 20 students were hospitalized in Four Loko-related incidents at Ramapo College in New Jersey.

One 23.5-ounce can of Four Loko is said to contain the equivalent of four or five beers and the caffeine in two cups of coffee.

Attorney generals in 18 states, including California, urged the FDA to look into the safety of the drinks, recommending the "immediate removal of [Alcoholic Energy Drinks] from the marketplace.” Michigan, Oklahoma, Utah and Washington have already prohibited vendors from selling Four Loko.

The caffeine-laced alcoholic beverages have become popular on college campuses since they were first marketed in 2005.

The media storm surrounding the drink has added to its allure. Everyone wants to talk about—or have—a first time.

The day after the FDA ruled, Jason Chen of Gizmodo provided a live blog of his Four Loko experience called, “How Four Loko Destroys My Body: A Live Blog For Science.”

The running commentary is more or less absurd, but Chen’s moral of the story is, “Don’t drink Four Loko.”

A CNN food writer took her taste test to Twitter proclaiming, “In the name of journalism and science, I - or more specifically, my liver - am taking one for the team.”

Guyism.com’s K. Thor Jensen chronicled his experience drinking six cans of Four Loko in a 24-hour period. He decided to “consume no other food or beverage” during the binge. By his calculations he downed 27 beers, 18 cups of coffee and nothing else.

The experience was less than pleasant.

“I can’t think of a single human activity that is improved by the addition of Four Loko,” he wrote. “It’s pink death piss from Satan’s prick in a 22-ounce can and it should not only be made illegal, the people responsible for making and selling it, right down to the poor chump at the convenience store, should be put to death.”

John Biggs of Crunch Gear livestreamed his experience drinking two Four Lokos in an hour.

The day before his experiment he wrote, “Why am I doing this? Because I support the sale of horrible malt liquor beverages?…Absolutely not. I personally consider Four Loko an affront to the long tradition of the delicious tipple but I find the media scare around the drink to be unpalatable and ridiculous…”

For some, the FDA’s warnings were an opportunity to take a stand and make a point.

One blogger who goes by the name Angela Davis, in honor of the civil rights activist, and wishes to remain anonymous because he is in law school, has started a “Free Loko Movement,” which he chronicles on the website FreeLoko.com.

At first glance the site resembles pure political satire with its posts about a partnership with the Tea Party, pleas for a letter-writing campaign to Obama and a picture of Four Loko cans pegged to a cross like Jesus, but Davis said his goals for the site are more ambitious. 

“The grand plan of the site is to get people riled up,” he said. “In addition to being silly, absurdist, etcetera it's also trying to make a real point about FDA and Congressional paternalism and irrationalism. Caffeine can't be sold inside of a can of malt liquor but can be sold next to it?”

Davis is also using the site as a platform to link Four Loko supporters with the Tea Party movement—two groups that would probably consider themselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

“We want transparency in government, we really want the government to stay out of things,” he explained, echoing the Tea Party’s stance on many issues, favoring hands off government and less regulation. “I don't think really progressive hipsters who drink Four Loko have any idea how much their views overlap with these neo-conservative members and bringing that to light is really interesting.”

The 23-year-old San Diego resident said he also hopes to spotlight the “political opportunism” he sees with politicians coming out against the drink.

“It's a great way for state and local politicians to get low-hanging votes to jump on the bandwagon of banning something supposedly ‘unsafe for children,’” he said. “Then they're the heroes of their local towns and the state legislature when really it has a very strong effect on the economy. All of these small bodegas have to take out tens of thousands of dollars of merchandise.”

One post states, “The FDA, which they claim stands for the Food and Drug Administration, but most likely ACTUALLY means Fraternity of (non) Drinking Assholes, have deemed it necessary to strip the common man of HIS right to poison himself in any way he sees fit.”

But Davis said he hopes the farce makes people think more about reality: “Nobody's forcing people to drink Four Loko to vomit. It's one of those rights somebody should have; they should be able to drink as much as they want and vomit” as they will.

Davis, who has yet to try Four Loko, said he and a friend launched the site the day the FDA ruled because they thought it was a funny idea.

It’s since gained traction, attracting 5,000 visitors on the first day after being featured on news aggregator GorillaMask.net and TotalFark.com.

Davis compared his site’s publicity for Four Loko to what Bros Icing Bros did for Smirnoff. 

“I think it's fantastic for Four Loko,” he said. “If Four Loko survives the whole recall and the expense of getting new products in the stores and making sure bodegas and convenience stores aren't afraid of stocking their product, I think overall it'll be a good thing.”

Kyle Reeves and Adam Carter created a Facebook event called “Four Loko Friday” to celebrate the “death of Four Loko,” the week the FDA issued its warnings.

“We started the event as a joke among friends and wanted to see how many people we could get on board,” Carter said. “I was surprised to get over 1,700 people to ‘attend’ the event.”

The Reno, Nevada, locals had no idea it would spread so far with more than 100 people across the country posting stories of how they’re mourning the demise of caffeinated Four Loko.

Reeves, 28, said he has friends who bought “fridges full of it,” but acknowledges that people will still find ways to “get messed up” regardless of if Four Loko is on shelves.

Carter, 27, pointed to cigarettes and other caffeine and alcohol mixtures.

“Banning them isn't going to change the culture of this type of drink,” he said. “People and kids have been drinking Jack [Daniel’s] and Cokes and Red Bull Vodkas for years. People still smoke cigarettes.”


To reach editor-in-chief Callie Schweitzer, click here.
To follow her on Twitter: @cschweitz

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