The Case Against Banning Four Loko


Four Loko is a popular alcoholic drink that is facing a growing backlash. Four states have banned it, and now the company has agreed to stop shipping Four Loko to New York. So what is this fearsome concoction? Well it's essentially a pre-packaged version of a common cocktail concept: mixing a lot of alcohol with a lot of caffeine. For example, a quick web search turns up many recipes for Red Bull and liquor. (Red Bull is an "energy drink" with caffeine as a key ingredient.)

Drinking one 24-ounce can of Four Loko provides the alcoholic kick of four beers and the caffeine buzz of a strong cup of coffee. Drinking one quickly makes someone pretty drunk and reasonably awake, and able to drink more. As a result, college students seem particularly drawn to it, which has landed some in hospitals. But should Four Loko be banned state-by-state as a result? I don't think so.

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Banning Four Loko might prevent some people, particularly some college students, from hurting themselves or others. But it does nothing to improve people's judgment or otherwise empower them to protect themselves. Banning hidden hazards from consumer products is one thing -- for example, heavy metals in jewelry for children -- but the hazards of drinking Four Loko couldn't be clearer.

It's no mystery, not even to binge-prone college students, that drinking too much alcohol is unhealthy, and can be trip-to-the-emergency-room dangerous. It's also no mystery that caffeine keeps you awake -- few college students study without it. And it's precisely caffeine's known ability to enable a drunk person to stay awake and continue to party that has led to the explosion of mixing "energy drinks" and alcohol, whether pre-packaged or not. College students -- just like everyone else -- need to learn to make choices that enable them to live long, productive lives, including the choice not to poison themselves with alcohol.

One More Step on a Path of Hypocrisy

While I support nanny-state efforts aimed at younger children -- getting junk food out of schools, for example -- our nation's approach to dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds and alcohol goes too far for me, and bans on drinks like Four Loko are outgrowths of that initial mistake. An 18-year-old can defend our country, vote for our leaders, be prosecuted and punished as an adult, watch X-rated movies -- and for a while, mostly in the 1970s, an 18-year-old could legally drink alcohol too. Some states had allowed 18-year-olds to drink beer, beer and wine, or all forms of alcohol at a younger age before the 1970s. The current nationwide 21-year-old drinking age is the result of a federal law from 1984, passed as an effort to combat drunk driving and the catastrophic crashes that result from it.

While I certainly don't defend drunk driving, I can't support the hypocrisy of respecting the judgment of 18-year-olds in so many other crucial contexts, but rejecting it in this one. But even if one accepts as a matter of principle the idea that the drinking age should be 21, the idea that Four Loko should be banned still goes too far. For starters, it's already illegal for young adults to buy Four Loko. Just because the drinking age is ineffectively enforced, and college students make good poster children for justifying bad policies, doesn't mean that Four Loko -- or any other caffeinated alcoholic beverage -- should be banned on the basis that 18-year-olds drink it.

We cannot ban our way to safety for America's youth.

Parents, first and foremost, but also relatives, neighbors, schools and worship communities, need to raise children with the critical-thinking skills and impulse control necessary to choose well -- at least well enough so that they don't pound so much alcohol and caffeine that they end up in the emergency room. And the 18 year old adults who make lousy choices anyway? They can't escape the ultimate teacher: experience. Ultimately, young people will be hit by enough consequences that the adults they become will make better choices. With luck, they won't kill themselves or anyone else first. But if they do, that's life.

There is no guarantee of absolute safety from accidents, and all the bans in the world won't create one.