There are many nicknames for Four Loko. Fans call it "blackout in a can" but regulators prefer "AED", which might read Anatomical Explosive Device except it actually means Alcoholic Energy Drink. In any event, it's poisonous and popular and because of it, Uncle Sam is taking a trip down Prohibition Lane.
Introduced along with a few less successful rivals at the end of last year, Four Loko, in eight different flavours, has the slightly shocking taste of super-charged shandy sucked through a lemon sherbet. It's packed with 12 per cent alcohol along with caffeine, guarana and taurine – the idea is to go from buzz to legless faster than a racehorse.
Loko caught on quickly. But what also came on fast were the media stories of wrecked drinkers. Reports began to surface of Loko binges sending university students to hospital and even of deaths. A Florida family filed a suit last week claiming their son had accidentally shot himself because of the effects of the drink.
Urged on by a chorus of Congressmen as well as state-level politicians, the federal government finally stepped forward last week and decreed that mixing caffeine with alcohol is unsafe and gave the manufacturers two weeks to respond.
The Chicago-based makers of Four Loko surrendered, saying that, while they will continue to market the drink, only the alcohol and flavourings would remain. No more caffeine, guarana or other speedy additives. The order, issued by the Food and Drug Administration, will thus have the effect of banning Four Loko and its rivals even though it has not been spelled out that way. "I think it's lousy," said Tony Williams who is homeless in New York but tries to panhandle enough cash to buy a can of Four Loko at East Way Deli on Third Avenue. "You know, it's smooth and it's mellow, but it's got that kick that you need."
The shop's owner, Rafi Salib, said he long resisted stocking the drink because he thought the name alone spelled trouble. (Loco means crazy in Spanish.) "But everyone was asking us for it, so we started stocking it two weeks ago," he said. Bad timing. The New York State Liquor Authority had outlawed the distribution of the drink even before the FDA took action.
Massachusetts became the fifth state to ban it last Thursday after reports of hospitalisations of attendees at parties on Boston campuses. One party trick reported to have taken hold in Manhattan is to attach a one-pint Loko can to your hand with duct tape before swigging back the contents without pausing. Most vociferous, however, was Washington state, whose Attorney General, Rob McKenna, sent a letter to the FDA saying the beverage "presents a serious threat to public health and safety".
In New York, the NBC station filmed a member of the state legislature, Felix Ortiz, drinking three cans of Four Loko, under medical supervision. Filming had to be stopped when Mr Ortiz began vomiting.
The Florida lawsuit was filed on behalf of the family of Jason Keiran, a student at Florida State University. Their lawyer said last week that he had died because of consuming Four Loko. Drawing on reports from the young man's friends, he said: "They say he started to act crazy. He pointed the gun at his head and everyone else. He said, 'I realise I'm freaking you guys out. Take the gun away from me.'"
The Fusion Project, the drink's makers, said: "We have repeatedly contended... that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe. If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees... would face the same scrutiny."