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
Links to this Post
- Four Loko tests the limits on two legal drugs - SmartPlanet | November 19, 2010
- Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock | November 19, 2010