The nannies in our government are at it again. Citing health dangers, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission announced on Nov. 4 that 55 alcoholic energy drinks, including the recently-popular Four Loko, will soon be banned from the shelves of stores statewide.

This paternalistic response follows an alleged sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl near Detroit and another episode involving nine Central Washington University students who were hospitalized upon excessive consumption of the caffeinated malt liquor. In the case of the 14-year-old, the 10th-grader testified that she had been drinking a mixture of Four Loko and rum, and later Hennessy at a motel room outside of Detroit. But there were numerous factors that contributed to this tragic assault — including the girl’s age, the large quantity of alcohol consumed and the actions of the men who allegedly assaulted her. To single out Four Loko as the main villain is a rash and reactionary decision by the state.

Across the country, Central Washington University President James Gaudino banned Four Loko from his campus. Administrators at Central Washington have heavily discouraged use of the drink. And while Gaudino and MLCC Commissioner Patrick Gagliardi will tell you that their bans are about protecting your health, take their words with a grain of salt.

The regulators want it to seem like they’re doing students a favor by curtailing irresponsible behavior. But the ban’s effects on the drinking habits of University students will be immaterial. To meet the desire for caffeinated alcohol, many students will simply resort to purchasing energy and alcohol drinks separately and then combining them, producing a drink very similar to Four Loko.

In other words, the measure will likely have no effects whatsoever on University drinking habits or the number of students hospitalized for alcohol-related harm. Central Washington University Police Captain Mike Luvera informed me during a Nov. 8 phone interview that there had been several alcohol-related citations issued to students who reported drinking Four Loko and other alcoholic energy drinks — even after the school president and mainstream media alleged that caffeinated alcohol was the latest threat to public health.

There is absolutely no empirical evidence behind the warnings that these products are more dangerous than other drinks that combine alcohol and caffeine. The mass hysteria created by the media and regulators in response to a product that the Food and Drug Administration has yet to complete testing is premature and ill advised. In fact, figures show that Four Loko is a less dangerous alternative to the practice of combining alcoholic and caffeinated drinks independently.

The volume of alcohol in Four Loko is comparable to the amount in five shots of vodka. Holding this level of alcohol constant, mixing a regular can of Red Bull with five shots of vodka would result in a caffeine-to-alcohol ratio that is 1.3 times greater than Four Loko. Four Loko isn’t especially dangerous. The fact is overconsumption of anything can be hazardous to one’s health. Moderation is the best policy.

But health concerns about Four Loko aren’t the only figures that fail to hold water. According to a Nov. 4 release from the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth, Four Loko’s “packaging is often misleading” — though the body offers no facts to back up this claim. But in fact, a glance at a can of Four Loko shows that its alcohol by volume warning of 12 percent is prominently displayed in large letters — the largest font size allowed by federal law, according to Phusion Projects, Inc.’s website, the producer of the drink. The Michigan Liquor Control Commission can’t seriously ask anyone to believe that consumers don’t know what they’re purchasing when they buy Four Loko. It’s difficult to believe that anybody has been misled into thinking that clearly-marked Four Loko cans aren’t alcoholic or caffeinated.

An unconsidered aspect in all this is the negative effects for the consumers. By supplying the public with an inexpensive alcoholic beverage, Four Loko was responding to consumer desires. People who once had to deal with a not-so-tasty array of $3-beverages could choose to consume a fruity alcoholic energy drink if they wished.

And while I would pass on any offer to drink Four Loko, that doesn’t mean that everyone should be required to. The move of three government regulators on the MLCC to reduce the choices of a state of millions of people with no data or testimony to back their decision amounts to nothing but the lowest form of government paternalism. A panel of two individuals should not have the power to turn their personal preferences into moral imperatives that require imposition through force.

With a ban in place, Gagliardi and liquor regulators are reducing the choices for Four Loko aficionados to spend their money as they see fit. Without a shred of scientific evidence to back up their claims, the rash and reactionary government decision to ban caffeinated alcohol needs to be reconsidered.

Alex Biles can be reached at jabiles@umich.edu.

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