Four Loko and Our Irrational Fear of Cognitive Enhancement

By Kyle Munkittrick | November 19, 2010 9:45 am

What, no Sparks? Bah! I'll just grind up some caffeine pills into this bottle of 151.

Four Loko is in the news! For a caffeinated malt liquor drink that comes in an assortment of barely palatable flavors, it sure is generating a lot of controversy. The FDA is banning it! People are taking sides and making bathtub home-brew! Politicians are binge drinking it for SCIENCE! Some folks think the ban might be classist or infringe our freedom of speech! Why is everyone so upset over this disgusting fusion of energy drink and booze? The official answer:

The FDA says it examined the published peer-reviewed literature on the co-consumption of caffeine and alcohol, consulted with experts in the fields of toxicology, neuropharmacology, emergency medicine and epidemiology as well as reviewed information provided by product manufacturers. FDA says it also performed its own independent laboratory analysis of these products and listened to experts who have raised concerns that caffeine can mask some of the sensory cues individuals might normally rely on to determine their level of intoxication.

Allow me to translate: the caffeine, guarana and taurine make it so that you’re less aware you’re drunk, so you get more drunk. Caffeine and alcohol, what a novel combination! Apparently the FDA has never heard of Red Bull and vodka, Irish coffee, or even a whisky and Coke. More importantly (or more hilariously) the FDA seems to think that people who purchase drinks like Four Loko and Joose make a point to pay attention to “sensory cues” to “determine their level of intoxication.” My absolutely unscientific and unverifiable opinion is that it is very hard to rely on “sensory cues” when one is “blackout, fall-down drunk.”

But that’s not the real point, is it? If it was, we’d ban every possible combo of caffeine and alcohol. What’s at stake here is our society’s fear of cognitive enhancement.

Caffeine is one of our most basic cognitive enhancers. It’s in coffee, soda, and energy drinks. Most all of us depend on, nay, are addicted to it in some form. Most of us “need” our morning caffeine to function. I, for one, get a headache if I don’t have some coffee, because I am a blogger and by definition subsist on the bean. Now consider the following argument from my fellow NYU grad student, John, about how we consume caffeine. John noted that “the caffeine content in a cup of coffee is extremely variable. A drink of the same size and same type will vary in caffeine content not just from company to company or store to store, but from cup to cup. Why don’t we just determine how much caffeine we need to get going in the morning, say 100 mg, and take it in pill form? Why are we ok with the drink, but not the pill?”

That, sir, is a very good question. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Every time I pass a Duane Reade (aka CVS/Walgreens) here in the city I think about wandering in and picking up some caffeine pills. I want to do it so that I can cut down on my java intake and, concomitantly, my monthly contribution to Starbucks’ profit margin. Yet I feel weird and crazy when the urge strikes, so I pass on the pills and buy a Mountain Dew at a bodega instead. Why? Why do I, Mr. Transhumanist, have trouble with the idea of taking caffeine pills? They are safer, more precise, work better, and don’t have high-fructose corn syrup or require a half-gallon of creamer for me to consume them. The fear of caffeine pills is, on face, irrational.

The answer seems to be that we have a bias towards imperfection and inaccuracy in our enhancement. Coffee has random amounts of caffeine. Every Red Bull and vodka is a different mixture. Both taste, uh, “good.” On the flip side, Four Loko and Joose have the exact same amount of stimulants in each unit. Caffeine pills offer even more precision. Genuine cognitive enhancing drugs, like Ritalin, Adderall, and modafinil, are equally precise but significantly more potent. As such, those drugs are not just prescription only, but the prescriptions themselves are heavily regulated. As power and precision go up, our concern over the form of enhancement goes up as well.

Four Loko is just another victim of our bias towards imperfect enhancers. I need a third cup of coffee to think about this more. Or will it be my fourth?

Image via jameskm03 on Flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Chemistry, Top Posts

Comments (17)

  1. My main problem is it was a large amount of UNDERAGE kids getting sick off it- it’s already illegal for them to buy or consume it why do they over look that and ban it for the entire population of over 21 adults? All they are doing is causing those of us who liked drinking a can of it to start our nights to stockpile it in record number purchases

  2. It’s not ‘fear of the pill.’

    The reason we addicts prefer to drink our caffeine is because it’s the easiest way to control the need for speed.

    Once ya take a pill, that’s it – there’s no on/off switch. But when you’re drinking it, you know when you’re ‘there,’ and you stop.

    Same thing with, say, cannabis. You do a few hits, get the high you want, and stop. But if you take a pot-pill, or even eat pot brownies, you can’t control how high you’ll get, and you have no choice but to wait until it wears off.

  3. Hmm… caffeine… as someone with poor cortisol/melatonin input, I depend on caffeine to keep me functional – though my cocktail of choice is black tea (a blend of orange pekoe and broken pekoe) with milk. Though I stop at adding alcohol – I prefer my booze as it was intended… a nice deep red colour, 12-15% abv… made from grapes.

    Still – I am working on getting methylphenidate (Ritalin) – as it has numerous benefits…

    1. It’s a stimulant (amphetamine)
    2. It increases learning plasticity in the amygdala

    The added benefit is that it’s a cognitive enhancer, though being in the 9:10,000 bracket, do I really need this? Maybe it’ll push me into the x:100,000 bracket… :)

    @3 As for dope… well… done my share, and even a couple of tokes on a joint isn’t really measurable or controllable. These days the THC content is so unpredictable, that you can’t get a ‘reliable’ dose. So I don’t bother – which is a good thing, ‘cos it stops me from going psychotic 😛

  4. While I agree that society has a certain paranoia about cognitive enhancers, I’ve got to disagree that the problem with Four Loko (and drinks like it, including vodka and Red Bull) is overblown. The reality is that these drinks (and other practices like taking caffeine pills while drinking) allow you to get to a much higher BAC level without becoming aware of it, the increased alertness can conceal a higher BAC. So being able to get these drinks very easily makes the risk of this higher. I do think that it’s going to happen regardless, as long as there is vodka and Redbull around, but I certainly think concerns about alcohol and caffeine ingested together are valid.

    A good analysis of the studies on this is over here:

  5. GAC

    How is this alchohol + caffeine combo only outlawed because it is a “cognitive enhancer”? People drinking it are still drunk, though they may not know it as well. And there ARE people who pay attention to “sensory ques”. When I do drink, which is not often, I try to limit my intake so I do not get excessively drunk. When I start stumbling, I know that I’ve already had to much and need to leave the bar immediately.

    Now, I don’t drink energy drinks with high amounts of caffeine — they scare me. The most caffeine I will have in a day is a couple 20-oz bottles of Coke, more often just a cup or two of green tea. But even if you are into these energy drinks, what is the point of mixing them with alcohol, other than to let you drink more than you normally could? The only other reason I could think of is if you are already addicted to these dangerously high levels of caffeine, and when you go out drinking.

    The Red Bull and vodka mix is a good point to bring up. Yes, people will do this no matter the regulations. But beyond the controlled dosage issue (which I question the usefulness of if it is still a dangerous dose), why package this all up into a shiny can and give it legitimacy to young people who otherwise would avoid the vodka/Red Bull mixture. I think we need to take seriously the dangers of these cocktails, and evaluate how much of a risk we want to take with public health.

  6. Mr Z

    Americans generally don’t like socialists… until ZOMG! who’s babysitting us? I forgot to teach my kid about alcoholic consumption but I’m going to sue that company for selling something that got my kid sick!!

    You wonder how some people learned to not touch a hot stove? Accidental overdose is right near the top of the list of causes of death but we’re not banning everything in sight, just this stuff. Stuff is as good a compliment as it will get from me. Why do we ban it? Because aunt Judy buys energy drinks for her kids and had no idea energy drinks were dangerous ZOMG, we can’t have this confusing product on the market. People are too STUPID to make their own decisions, therefore Uncle Sam has to step in and take the product off the market. It makes you wonder why we still have table knives that will fit inside an electric socket… wait, never mind.

    You just know there are a bunch of people in Moscow laughing to themselves over how soft and pampered Americans are. If this blows your mind, check this out:

    Yep, antifreeze is too tasty! ZOMG I bet it tastes better than Four Loko ! Maybe Four Loko should be poisonous?

  7. Envirra

    Why don’t we address the real issue that makes our youth want alcohol in the first place – advertisements that make them think the only way to be cool, have a good time, or attract the opposite sex…. is to drink something with alcohol. As far as adults go… they just need to learn the meaning of ‘moderation’ and live by it – for the health and good fortune of all!

  8. Dunc

    The line between “cognitive enhancer” and “psychoactive substance” is a pretty thin one. Buy those caffeine pills, go on a proper bender, and see just how “cognitively enhanced” you feel…

    Back in the day, we used to call LSD a “cognitive enhancer”. (OK, we might not have used those exact words, but that was the sentiment.)

    I think a big part of the problem with these caffeinated energy drinks is just how caffeinated they are. Sure, people mix coffee and alcohol, or vodka and red bull, but not that many people mix a half bottle of vodka with a pint of double-strength espresso.

    As someone who went through a phase of drinking Buckfast Tonic Wine (a popular caffeinated alcoholic beverage in the UK, also know colloquially as “Fight The World”), I can attest that there’s a big difference between this sort of stuff and just about anything else on the market. I may be in favour of drug legalisation, but I’m not in favour of selling heroin and meperedine in the same syringe.

  9. Matt B.

    The fear of things like caffeine pills is about overdose. You can’t OD on caffeine by drinking coffee, at least not without having some time between drinks to reconsider.

    BTW, was “most all of us” supposed to be “most of us”, “all of us” or “almost all of us”? “Most all” is contradictory. If it was “all of us” or “almost all of us”, I disagree.

  10. Rob

    The thing that really sickens me is how political this is all getting. The bandwagon of idiots continues to grow. It’s a shame that this company is being targeted. Their product is meant to be consumed by adults. That’s why you have to be 21 to buy it.

    As many others have already said…they don’t exactly hide the fact that this drink will pack a punch. Just look at the can. There are labels all over it indicating its alcohol and caffeine content. There are no cartoon characters on it or anything to make me think it is targeted to kids.

    Don’t we have enough to worry about in this nation already? This is ridiculous.

  11. Ahcuah

    Whiskey and Coke? Please. Everybody know that rum is the appropriate alcoholic additive for Coke.

  12. Lyr

    Caffeine and alcohol? Buzz Beer ftw!

  13. Dr Coffee

    You leave out the importance of the ritual, the sensual aspect of the morning cup of coffee–detailed in the June 25 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

    “an international group of scientists reports that inhaling the rich, warm aroma of a hot cup of joe may alter the activity of some genes in the brain, reducing the effects of sleep deprivation — no drinking required.”

  14. Great Info… For your synthetic urine needs, make sure you check out

  15. Thanks for such a great post and the review, I am wholly impressed!


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