Four Loko uses irresponsible marketing techniques, targets students

Credit: Patrick Gage Kelley/Contributing Editor Credit: Patrick Gage Kelley/Contributing Editor

There has been a rash of incidents this month at colleges across the United States where alcohol put students in the hospital, the most-discussed of which was an incident at Central Washington University where nine students ended up in the hospital.

The reason these incidents have drawn media attention is because each of them has been linked to the same drink, a product called Four Loko. Created by three Ohio State University alumni, this caffeinated alcoholic drink contains 12 percent alcohol by volume in a 23.5-ounce can. That is, one can contains nearly the same amount of alcohol as a six-pack of beer or five shots of tequila.

But the real issue with Four Loko is not the quantity of alcohol but that this amount of alcohol is mixed with caffeine, packaged in a brightly colored can that looks not dissimilar from Arizona Green Tea, and then sold at a suggested retail price of $2.50. The caffeine delays the feeling of intoxication until well past when the effects of a six-pack would have been felt. For this reason, Four Loko has earned the nickname “blackout in a can.”

While this marketing strategy is obviously successful, as the sudden popularity of Four Loko and other caffeine-alcohol blends has shown, we consider it irresponsible of the manufacturers. Four Loko’s marketing strategy seems to target a demographic that has little money to spend and wants to drink as much as possible — that is, many college students. These students are more likely to abuse the stimulant properties of the caffeine-alcohol mix, leading to a blackout at best or alcohol poisoning at worst.

The dangers of Four Loko and similar products have concerned universities, state attorneys general, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In response, some colleges and universities have begun to ban Four Loko and similar drinks. We consider this ineffective, as the majority of such bans either have no effect or actively encourage students to break the rules.

Government officials have pushed for a large-scale investigation into the health effects of Four Loko and similar drinks, while the products’ manufacturers have stated consistently that mixing alcohol and caffeine is perfectly safe. Yet anecdotal evidence continues to portray Four Loko drinkers as being unaware of the amount of alcohol they have consumed. Among the other health dangers, this makes them more likely to drive while intoxicated.

It is the efforts of the FDA that we support. At the least, they should mandate additional warnings for alcohol-stimulant combinations that explain the additional health risks. Such drinks should not be classified the same way as standard beverages like beer or liquor. Only by informing users about the dangers of Four Loko can we avoid more hospitalizations and deaths from its abuse.