Four Loko is back in the lime-flavored limelight. Illinois brand, Phusion Project, LLC’s flagship product is moving from the hardly visited, far end of liquor store refrigerators onto the liquor shelves themselves with a new drink. It’s called Four Loko Shots: the brand’s foray into hard liquor. Despite the ‘hard’ moniker of this new line, it’s doubtful these spirits will pack the same go-hard connotation of its predecessor.

Remember 2010-era Four Loko? Many don’t because they drank the stuff. Back then, the product was at its height in popularity, and unpredictability. The original formula was notorious for being the what-did-I-do-last-night drink of parties everywhere. It mixed imposing quantities, colorful cans, diesel-fuel fruit flavors, tons of energy and a massive alcohol volume — the real selling point for 20-somethings looking for the most bang for their buck.

Two cans of potentially alcoholic beverages in ice.

Gone Loko. Gone For Good.

It was the go-to. And yes, it was dangerous. The titular four in the name comes from its four original ingredients: alcohol, caffeine, taurine and guarana. Each 23.5-ounce monstrosity was lauded for its ability to bring the party, and the stamina to party, all in one can. The caffeine and stimulants in these alcoholic energy drinks masked the feeling of drunkenness, which caused users to consume more to feel the effects. This led to several hospitalizations in the fall of 2010. The drink was even blamed for a few fatal accidents. Soon after, college campuses around the country banned Four Loko, and many states followed suit. The company agreed to pull the product within weeks, and relaunched it without the uppers.

The Attorney General of Illinois, Lisa Madigan, called the victory, “a significant step forward in our ongoing efforts to reduce access to dangerous caffeinated alcoholic beverages, especially to underage drinkers.”

Lacking three lokos, the drink became just another alcoholic drink. The tamed-down version was a shell of the blackout-inducing catalyst it once was. Caffeinated alcoholic beverages have since gone to the wayside all together. Anheuser-Busch’s Tilt and MillerCoors’ Sparks had to reformulate their own malt creations following the Four Loko fiasco as well. But what sort of legacy did it leave behind?

In a word: binging. It stimulated the culture of beverage excess bred into us from a young age. Pre-teens binge soda, teens binge energy drinks, young adults binge the gamut, plus alcohol. When the lines between these products blur — as was the case with Four Loko — the age of use becomes a gray area, too.

It Begins with an Image

Looking beyond the contents of the can, it could be argued that much of the original Four Loko’s danger is also attributable to its branding. It was the perfect collegiate cocktail — cheap, pre-mixed and plentiful. The camouflage packaging was all too fitting; the dangers of the alcohol were hidden behind a charismatic facade.

Alcohol has been tricky in that way over the past decade or so. Beer brands have been touting their casualness and ease-of-drink since the discovery of hops, but the newer class of mixed beverages take accessibility and relatability to new extremes.

Call it the Mike’s Hard Lemonade effect. Think about it: what role has lemonade played in your life since you once ran that neighborhood stand? If life gave you lemons…you probably just asked for them in your ice water at Applebee’s. And yet, Mike’s has made lemonade relevant again. The guise being that it’s not liquor at all. It’s ‘hard’ lemonade.

New players in the industry like Not Your Father’s or Henry’s are doing the same for root beer and cream sodas respectively. It seems brands can make 1950s drinks palatable again just by adding alcohol. No harm no foul, right?

Influenced and Under the Influence

Except, kids love the stuff. A 2013 study published by the School of Public Health in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research found that Mike’s and Smirnoff malt beverages — think Smirnoff ICE® — where both in the top ten preferred choices of underage drinkers. At the time of the study, 10.8 percent of underage drinkers reported consuming Mike’s within the last month and 17 percent had swigged similar Smirnoff beverages.

These results surprised the researchers. Beyond the ubiquitous, American drinks like Bud Light, young people favored drinks such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade while adults turned elsewhere. Why? While perhaps not the day-to-day drink it once was, lemonade represents something familiar. A novice drinker who is dipping their toes into liquor finds comfort in relatable, childhood-staple drinks.

It’s also beneficial to understand the scope of underage drinking. In 2015, 7.7 million kids ages 12 to 20 had a drink within a month of the study. Some 26.1 percent of 8th graders had a drink in the last year. And the number of users goes up as they grow up. Upward of 64 percent of high school seniors had a drink in the same timeframe, and 46.7 percent reported being drunk. Additionally, 32 percent of college students participate in frequent binging, drinking five or more drinks in a single sitting.

Moreover, popular drinks that don’t have alcohol at all contribute to the problem. A study found that students who knock back energy drinks had an increased likelihood to drink more alcohol, more often than those who abstained from them. Health concerns of energy drinks aside: their packaging bears an uncanny resemblance to beer and malt beverage cans. From Monster to Red Bull, the designs copy the liquor-store look. There is likely a subconscious association going on here. Mike’s amps up lemonade by adding alcohol. Rockstar amps up lemonade by adding energy. Four Loko showed us the mixture of both worlds. With the vast number of choices, blending of and confusion over contents, it’s no wonder underage drinking has found a niche market.

Two underage teens toast alcoholic beverages.

Soft? Drinks

It’s not just soda and juice influencing alcohol products, though. We now live in a strange time where alcoholic drinks are reverse-informing soft drinks. In 2017, PepsiCo unveiled its newest line called Mountain Dew Spiked. Outside of taking obvious naming cues from the harders, wickeds and twisteds of the world, the Spiked branding connotes a desire to capitalize on both this segment and the younger demographic that can’t legally drink such products yet. Though it may say ‘Non-Alcoholic’ on the can, it reads alcoholic just the same.

It’s the sort of questionable line energy drinks have teetered on forever. Such pick-me-ups have been some of the highest-selling products for soft drink manufacturers for years. It explains the influx of energy-drink-like rebrands of soda cans across the industry. However, the industry is now skipping a rung on the established ladder by labeling sodas similarly to alcoholic mixed drinks.

Are these aluminum can identity crises the candy cigarettes of today? Do products branded in this way desensitize or predispose us to the harder stuff? Ultimately, we must ask ourselves these sorts of questions. It is unfair to blame underage drinking on advertising images, product branding, peer groups, family dynamics or any other factor alone — it’s a multifaceted issue. Still, we must determine what precedent soda that mirrors mixed drinks sets for teens, the group drinking the carbonated stuff by the caseload.

We wouldn’t want to send mixed messages.

The Recovery Village provides treatment options for people of all ages who are suffering from an addiction to drugs and alcohol. If you or someone you love is reaching for the bottle — reach out — help is closer than you think.

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