Canned drinks that contain both alcohol and caffeine have been wreaking havoc among young adults over the past year. These beverages, such as Four Loko and Joose, are a health threat because "caffeine masks the effects of alcohol... tricking users into believing they can keep drinking well past the point of drunkenness," wrote Abby Goodnough and Dan Frosch in a recent New York Times article on the drinks ("F.D.A. Expected to Act on Alcoholic Energy Drinks"). The beverages are popular among young adults because they are inexpensive and they come in energy-drink flavors such as lemon-lime, fruit punch, and watermelon.
This week, the FDA sent warning letters to the manufacturers of these "caffeinated alcoholic beverages", stating that the Agency might seize their products as illegal substances if the manufacturers do not change their formulas. The health consequences from consuming these beverages can include alcohol poisoning, car crashes, and even heart attacks in young drinkers.
A Washington Post article about these beverages pointed out that the young adults who consume them sometimes document their drunken exploits on sites such as fourlokostories.com ("FDA, FTC crack down on caffeinated alcoholic drinks"). The stories there, if they are true, show a wide range of dangerous behavior, including drunk driving and fist fights, and often include the phrase "the last thing I remember...."
In response, Four Loko manufacturer Phusion Products LLC has (begrudgingly) agreed to remove caffeine from its products. But some manufacturers and many young adults who consume these beverages find the FDA warnings intrusive. "It's time the FDA started treating consumers old enough to purchase alcoholic beverages as adults," Gregory Conko told the Washington Post . Conko represents the libertarian think tank The Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Which raises the question: what makes someone a mature adult? Is it simply being old enough to buy alcohol in a store, at age 21, and hopefully consume it responsibly? Being old enough to vote and join the military, at age 18? Graduating from college? Getting married? Starting a career? Buying a house?
With the start of mature adulthood unclear, it's also unclear how to treat young adults who might, or might not yet be, mature. I would like to trust young adults to avoid or limit the use of dangerous products such as Joose. But I also would like to see these beverages, which clearly target young adults, banned so that they aren't tempted by the wrong choice, while we continue to figure out what it means, exactly, to be a grown-up in this society.