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Loco for Loko

Colleges have demonized the caffeine-alcohol drink, but students need to be smarter about risks

By Taylor Adams
Globe Correspondent / November 4, 2010

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You’d think the academic world was on the brink of collapse. Campuses around the city have issued warnings. Medical professionals are up in arms. Academic officials quiver in fear. Regulators and watchdogs are on alert.

Is it on-campus violence, Adderall abuse, or even rampant, hedonistic “Eyes Wide Shut’’-caliber sex parties?

Not this time. For today’s college student, danger arrives in an extremely colorful can. In that can is the beverage known as Four Loko.

This potent, intoxicating mixture of caffeine and malt liquor has had the additional effect of getting nearly everyone in a tizzy after it sent some overzealous revelers to the ER.

Even the venerable Harvard University issued a warning urging students to stay away from the drink, citing incidents involving members of college campuses nationwide, including its own. The students in question, regardless of their academic affiliations, must not be math majors, because 23.5 fluid ounces of 12 percent malt liquor, plus caffeine, taurine, guarana, and whatever else is in that can, is not adding up to “excessive’’ in their minds.

My own Northeastern University chimed in on a recent afternoon with its own doomsday warning, urging students to avoid Four Loko and to tell others to do the same. Thanks, guys, but for a beverage with such colorful, frankly ridiculous marketing and presentation, isn’t all this rampant disapproval just good publicity?

The New York Times did, after all, only have to travel as far as Boston University to find a student who would reveal the drink’s true appeal: “You can get drunk for $5 all night,’’ she said. Clearly, students are drinking this stuff because it’s fast, cheap, and allows them to party longer and with greater endurance in the doing-stupid-stuff department.

No, this is not OK, and no, it is not smart. But the product in question did not create this desire. It merely fulfills it with an efficiency of Olympian proportions. The fact that a group of hard-partying young adults has fallen prey to its charms is something of an embarrassment. While our younger siblings have gone bonkers for Bieber, we’ve become “loco’’ for Loko.

What exactly does “Four Loko’’ mean, anyway? Why “Four?’’ Is it more “Loko’’ than three? Obviously. But how “Loko’’ is that? “Loko’’ itself is slightly less obscure. Though nonsensical, it has multicultural appeal, evocative both of the Spanish word for “crazy’’ (loco) and, ostensibly, the feeling of being a locomotive (not to mention the feeling, the next morning, of having been broadsided by one).

For all its mysteries, Four Loko does not hide its intoxicating intent. The fact that the beverage contains alcohol — and lots of it — is proudly proclaimed all over the gaudy, explosion-motif can as if it were a battle cry. A small logo claims “We ID,’’ even though I’m pretty sure it’s the store clerk who tends to ask for one’s license, and not the can. Such absurdity is the essence of this drink.

Still, demonizing one product does little to highlight a wider emphasis on binge drinking in college life. Furthermore, it explains not at all why we, as a society, constantly lust after caffeine. Our work force practically runs on coffee, does it not? For those few who treat partying as if it were a full-time occupation, the marriage of alcohol and caffeine was bound to be greeted with enthusiasm. In fact, it has been for some time. Unfortunately, targeting Four Loko alone cannot solve this problem. Loko is just the latest in an ancient tradition of questionable decisions involving alcohol. These have also included the beer funnel, keg stands, and the ’80s power hour.

I would agree that common sense, and almost any conception of taste, dictate that Four Loko is best avoided. Not just by drinkers, but by those who would regard it with hysteria. College students are often pretty intelligent. We are likely to listen to reason, and even the hardest of partiers will probably admit that their behavior is risky and unsustainable — especially when it is fueled by something that tastes like it was conceived in a laboratory. But the mounting battle against Four Loko is unlikely to inspire self-reflection among those looking for a wild night in a can.

Taylor Adams is a senior at Northeastern University. He can be reached at tadams@globe.com. Christopher Muther is not writing today.

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