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From Fun to Frightening: The Truth About Four Loko

Blackout in a can. Liquid cocaine. The one-sip wonder. Whatever you call it, Four Loko is taking the world by storm, whipping college students everywhere into a hyped-up, falling down, drunk-off-their-asses frenzy. To students without the money or resources to keep a fully stocked liquor cabinet (or even to keep the party going after 11 pm), it seems like a miracle drink: one fizzy can, as fruity and innocuous-tasting as a Fanta, capable of catapulting you into wasted-land within just a few minutes. No more hourly Keystone runs, no more bored guests filing out once you’re out of chasers, no more bothering with cups, even. A whole night of partying, wrapped up in one brightly-colored, oversized can. A gift from God for college kids, right? 

Maybe not. Over the past several months, Four Loko has blown up on college campuses across the country, and along with its newfound popularity has come an increasingly notorious reputation. The alcoholic drink has sent tons of students, many of them underage, over the edge and into the hospital, casting everyone’s new favorite party accessory into a pretty scary light. Four Loko is so new, and has taken over so quickly, that it’s hard to tell what we’re really getting ourselves into when we take a sip. HC is here to blow the lid off this ubiquitous but unsavory new craze—how loko IS Four Loko, really?


So what exactly is Four Loko, anyway?
Four Loko is an alcoholic energy drink. It comes in 23.5 oz. cans (about twice the size of a regular can of beer), and is available in nine fruity flavors, including lemonade, watermelon and kiwi strawberry (but basically all tasting like poisonous Jolly Ranchers). It’s a spin-off of Four, another alcoholic energy drink that contains less alcohol and caffeine, that was introduced in 2005. Four Loko has been around for two years and since has gained immensely in popularity, partly due to its dirt-cheap prices: a can costs anywhere from $1.99 to $2.50.

The kicker? Four Loko contains 12 percent alcohol. Deb Lewis, an alcohol and drug use expert at Cornell’s Health Services, says, “Drinking a whole 23.5 oz. can is the equivalent of having almost 5 shots or 5 beers. That is a lot of alcohol for anyone, but, if you’re a woman…around 120 pounds, and you drink that an in about an hour, your BAC will be up around a .18, which is over twice the legal limit.”

This combination of alcohol and caffeine has the ability to get you really, REALLY messed up without feeling the “depressant” effects of alcohol like slurred words, passing out, slowed synapses, all the stuff that would cause you to stop drinking when you’ve had too much.

Rob*, a junior at the University of Maryland, explains why everyone’s so crazy for Four Loko: “It’s great because you can get drunk without worrying about passing out. When I drink, I usually run out of steam a few hours into the night. When I drink Four Loko, I don’t have to worry about losing my energy.”

What’s so dangerous about it?

Precisely that same combination. Mixing alcohol, a depressant, with caffeine, a stimulant, gets you drunk but makes you FEEL less drunk. Since you’re so alert from the onslaught of caffeine, your brain is tricked into not feeling the depressing effects of alcohol on your central nervous system, therefore making you think you can drink way more than you actually can. The drink, therefore, causes tons of students to take it too far, going from bouncing off the walls one minute to hitting the floor the next. Drinking Four Loko consistently causes blackouts, vomiting, and alcohol poisoning, and it has been the culprit behind thousands of college-student hospitalizations this year.

Lewis warns that by the time the drink’s caffeine wears off, the alcohol in Four Loko will catch up with you and can get you way too drunk, leading to “potential negative repercussions like blackouts, an unwanted hookup, or even alcohol poisoning, which could be fatal.”

Nicole, a student at Cornell University, tried Four Loko one time and never wants to go back: “I’d had a couple of drinks already, then I had one can of Four Loko. Next thing I knew I was hanging over my bed throwing up uncontrollably; I’d had no idea one can would get me that drunk. Never again.”

Being that hyped-up and drunk at the same time can lead to lots of other dangers, too. In a recent news conference, the FDA’s principal deputy commissioner, Joshua Sharfstein, warned of the behavioral risks of such a potent combination: “Being wide awake and drunk at the same time increases the risk of engaging in several forms of violent or other high-risk physical behaviors that can cause injury.”

Students are more likely to drink and drive, too, since they think they’re less drunk—a study at the University of Florida found that more students who were under the influence of both caffeine and alcohol drank and drove more than those who were just drunk. And since students drunk off Four Loko can be in a blackout while they run amok, they’re put at even more risk.


What’s everyone doing about it?

The drink gained national attention after students at Ramapo College in New Jersey and Central Washington University in Washington landed in the ER, some with dangerously high levels of alcohol poisoning.  According to a recent New York Times article, one Ramapo student had drank three cans of Four Loko in under an hour, and checked into the hospital with a BAC of .40, a lethal level. Ramapo has subsequently banned all caffeinated alcoholic drinks. As more and more evidence of Four Loko’s loko effects began to surface, first more schools, then state and federal organizations, have begun to investigate its safety.

The FDA has began researching whether or not it should be legal to mix high levels of caffeine and high levels of alcohol in the same can, and while the investigation is still pending they’re definitely aware of the drink’s dangers.  Four Loko is already banned in Michigan, Washington, Massachusetts, Utah and Oklahoma and as of November 19 Four Loko distributors stopped shipping the drink to New York State. In addition, by December 10 New York beer distributors will be forced to stop stocking the drink.

So for now, Four Loko is still legal to drink (in most places), but it may not be safe—and it’s DEFINITELY not safe in large, or even moderate doses.

How can I drink Four Loko safely?

Lewis said the danger in Four Loko lies not solely in the drink’s combination of alcohol and caffeine, but its abuse by college students:

“People have been drinking rum and coke, vodka-Red Bull, Baileys Irish cream for years,” she remarks. “Those drinks all have caffeine, but what makes Four Loko so dangerous is that it’s made to be drunk so quickly. If you drink five beers, for example, you’ll feel really full and probably pretty drunk. Four Loko gets all those beers in a single can, so you won’t realize how much you’re drinking.” Chug a can of Four Loko like you would a can of Keystone, and you’re packing a whole night of drinking into a very, very short period of time—a recipe for disaster.

The best way to avoid unwanted consequences while drinking Four Loko, then, is to stop drinking it like a giant can of beer, and start drinking it like fizzy, outrageously-bright wine (it does, after all, have the same alcohol content as your favorite box of Franzia). “Pour it like you would a glass of wine, which is a 5 oz. serving,” Lewis suggests. “Also, drink it like you would a glass of wine, sip for at least 20 minutes so that you can start to feel the effects of the first serving before you go onto that second serving.” 

Lewis also suggests alternating your Loko with some H2O: “Consider filling your cup with water between servings. It will help with the hangover the next day, cut down on the empty calories from the alcohol, and allow you to check in with how you really feel before going on to that next drink.”

Jenny*, a student at Cornell University, sums up the essence of the party staple: “It’s a vile concoction, and college students abuse it in a way that is absolutely not safe.”

So next time you see that shiny, bright, ridiculously oversized can at a frat party, think twice before cracking it open. If you’re not careful, you could get too loko for your own good.


*names have been changed

Caffeine and Alcohol Drink Is Potent Mix for Young – NY Times, October 26, 2010


Mixture of Caffeine and Alcohol: The Cause of Everything Bad – Gawker, October 27, 2010


FDA Eyes Caffeinated Alcoholic Drinks – Web MD


Four Loko Maker Halts New York State Deliveries Friday – Cornell Daily Sun


Deb Lewis, Cornell University Gannett Health Services

Photo Sources:

Amanda First is a senior English major at Cornell University.  She is Life Editor of Her Campus, as well as founding editor of Her Campus Cornell. She has interned for Cornell Alumni Magazine, Harper's Bazaar, and Parents through ASME's internship program.  Some of her favorite things include high heels, browsing ShopBop, yoga, The O.C. reruns (but only before Marissa dies), and Tasti D-Lite. After college, she hopes to pursue a career in magazine journalism.
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