Strip Liquor, on Las Vegas Boulevard near Convention Center Drive, was bustling on the morning of Nov. 19 as patrons stocked up on beverages for the weekend. One of those beverages—Four Loko—has become particularly popular in recent days. The alcoholic energy drink, nicknamed “blackout in a can,” is on a publicity blitz following scrutiny this week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It’s the eve of Prohibition for Four Loko.
“Sales are through the roof,” says one Strip Liquor staffer, who didn’t give her name as she rushed to get off the phone to return to her customers. “They’ve increased because of the publicity.”
Similar scenes of stocking up are being reported across the country as people rush to snatch up Four Loko while they can. There have been numerous reports of college students getting sick (and, well, drunk) after consuming Four Loko. Michigan and New York are among the states that have banned the drink to date, which has the alcohol content of wine (12 percent) in a 23.5-ounce can, with 156 milligrams of caffeine (about the same as a tall cup of Starbucks coffee).
On Nov. 16, Chicago-based Phusion Projects, the maker of Four Loko, responded to pressure from the FDA by announcing that the company would remove caffeine, guarana and taurine in the beverage. Chris Hunter, Jeff Wright and Jaisen Freeman—Phusion’s three co-founders and current managing partners—released a statement saying, “We have repeatedly contended—and still believe, as do many people throughout the country—that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe. If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees that have been consumed safely and responsibly for years would face the same scrutiny that our products have recently faced.”
The next day, the FDA told Phusion Projects and six other companies that make caffeinated alcoholic beverages that their products are “a public health concern.” The companies were told that the beverages, as formulated now, cannot stay on the market.
The controversy has elicited a divided response. On the one side are those who agree the product is unsafe, irresponsible and should be banned. On the other side are defenders of the free market who don’t believe the government should be involved in the issue. Then there are the die-hard fans of the beverage who are stocking up at places like Strip Liquor, Facebookers who are planning virtual drinking parties, mourners who are scheduling live vigils, and fans who are sharing bootleg recipes online for DIY Four Loko.
Tony Abou-Ganim is the first to admit he’s not a fan of mixing energy drinks with alcohol. The former Bellagio beverage specialist and founder of TheModernMixologist.com says he’s rather get a root canal than drink an upper-downer cocktail. “It’s kind of like a poor man’s speedball. You get wired and you get a buzz on,” he says. “Personally, when I’m that tired and I need something like that to stay out at the club, it’s probably time to go home anyway.” Still, he says it’s a decision that should be made by the consumer rather than the government. Abou-Ganim adds that this is a great opportunity to spotlight responsible drinking.
“It comes down to education. People are going to do it. The FDA can come in and say you have to take this out, but people will still just mix the two substances together,” he says. “Prohibition proved to be a huge lesson in that.”