Monday, October 25, 2010

CWU Mass Poisoning Due to 4Loco?

Well, that just happened. Local authorities who investigated the CWU student off-campus party in Ellensberg, WA where 9 students were hospitalized have concluded that the obscene levels of intoxication observed by police were the product of the 4Loco malt liquor/energy drink, and not the result of illicit drug dosing. Well, the investigators seem to have decided that the intoxication was the result of people mixing vodka and 4Loco. This potent mixture would be comparable to the vodka-Redbulls which have become $8 staples at even the cheapest bars, except that 4Loco already packs a 12% alcohol by volume punch. This mixture may habe been what the party hosts were serving, or guests may have made the mistake by themselves, assuming that 4Loco was a simple energy drink.

Either way, it's pretty funny watching people run around saying that we should regulate 4Loco. After all, it is already regulated as an alcoholic beverage. I don't see what additional regulations could produce. It is already illegal to sell it to minors, though anyone who has ever been 18 knows that that is no bar to alcohol purchases. So what would a rational society do to prevent these types of alcohol-related mistakes by inexperienced drinkers? They provide alcohol education which went far beyond the normal college introductory "alcohol is bad; be safe" hour-long lecture. You would never see a normal 40 year old mixing 4Loco and vodka. But that's exactly what you expect to see when a 19 year old is learning to drink from her idiot friends. Kids who can safely have a few drinks with their parents every now and then are less likely to develop dangerous drinking habits. America has serious cultural problems with the way that it views drugs, and hospitalizations of minors is a symptom of those problems.

People ingest drugs to pursue psychologically salient effects. When a drug is ingested, the psychological expectations play a big a role in determining drug-outcomes. Alcohol is particularly susceptible to cultural scripts which determine the changes in behaviors that users take into their experience. Drinkers of 4Loco are pursuing "getting drunk" as their primary goal. Every single drinker of 4Loco is doing so- the taste is actually that bad (trust me). Why these drinkers are pursuing this goal is beyond me, but it probably has much more do do with the culture surrounding alcohol on campus and among their friends than it does any individual pathologies.

This is why I think it's pretty funny when people make claims about societal effects of marijuana use--or any drug used in a social setting--the claims that we make about drug effects are self-fulfilling prophecies. Everyone is familiar with the placebo effect, the feeling of health improvement when you tell someone you are giving them a medicine. The placebo effect is one outcome of a drug-related script. Essentially, the patient gets better because a doctor tells them that they will. In the same way, American drinkers become more violent because they are told that that is normal. Marijuana smokers become more lazy because that's what they expect. Those who ingest marijuana for medical reasons don't report the same effects. Cultures that use alcohol differently show different behavioral responses for similar dosages.



    The students themselves recognize that Fourloko is a problem. This video was produced by students before it was released into the media that the incident was related to caffeinated alcohol drinks.

    The main reason that Fourloko is dangerous is not because of some placebo effect never observed in research with regard to this drug, but because of the social effects of its marketing. The can design and advertising make it more likely to be sold to minors by untrained store clerks. Its size and alcohol content, along with its use of three major masking agents of alcohol side effects, mean that the tendency to finish the can found in inexperienced drinkers and alcoholics can quickly produce problems, especially with lighter women.

    A correlation can be found in fine cigars versus cigarettes. Cigarettes are packaged and sold in a way that encourages mass consumption. Fine cigars cause cancer, but they cause far less than cigarettes. That is not because they are safer, but because their packaging encouraged limitations in consumption.

  2. In my opinion, the problem lies on both sides of the equation. While I do agree that the advertising for four loko does seem to possibly attract teenagers and under-age drinkers, I also feel that the problem lays with the students themselves. Being freshman, the students were quite obviously inexperienced drinkers and were falling into the trend that the goal of drinking is to "black out." The students at the party should have been more careful. The person of age who purchased the alcohol should have been there to keep people in line. Instead, the exact opposite was achieved.