Talking to your teen about Four Loko

The alcoholic energy drink Four Loko has been in the news lately because of its high alcohol content and popularity with young drinkers. Here John Knight, MD, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research(CeASAR), comments on how parents can talk to their teens about the potential danger of Four Loko.

John Knight, MD

If you read the papers or watched the news this weekend there’s a good chance you saw media coverage about the alcoholic energy drink Four Loko, which has been making headlines for its role in the hospitalization of college students, prompting local universities to issue warnings about its potency and was even banned by the state of Michigan. According to reports, the product’s high alcohol content has earned nicknames like “blackout in a can” or “liquid cocaine.”

And it’s a well earned reputation. With a sweet flavor, the alcohol content of roughly five beers and as much caffeine as two cups of coffee, Four Loko drinkers can consume a good amount of alcohol in a short time period, getting them more intoxicated and increasing their chances of alcohol poisoning. What’s more, its cheap price tag won’t stretch a student budget, increasing Four Loko’s appeal to young people.

But what’s especially troubling about Four Loko is its potential to encourage teenage drinking. The companies that make Four Loko and similar beverages may claim to be targeting a demographic that’s of legal drinking age, but in the process they’re also appealing to the age group beneath them, who are more susceptible to the dangers of alcohol.

It’s common knowledge that alcohol consumption kills brain cells and impairs judgment, but it’s effects can be far more severe for teenage drinkers. The brain’s frontal lobe, which regulates our sense of judgment and restraint, isn’t usually fully developed until the mid 20s. This is also the same part of the brain most affected by alcohol. This means a drunken teenager’s inhibitions and concept of what’s safe or acceptable is even less trustworthy than that of an intoxicated adult, easily creating a potentially dangerous situation.

“Teenagers are far more sophisticated than many give them credit for, and generally speaking, they’re very aware when someone is trying to influence them.”

Alcohol also tends to make adult users feel sleepy or tired, but often has the opposite effect on teenagers. So a product like Four Loko, with its elevated alcohol and caffeine levels, results in a teenager who gets drunk quicker and stays awake longer, giving them far more time to engage in unsafe behavior. In addition, people who consume alcohol in their teenage years are far more likely to develop an addictive disorder, known as alcoholism, as they get older.

And unfortunately, Four Loko isn’t the only booze-filled beverage aimed at young drinkers. I recently came across a product called Adult Chocolate Milk, which has been designed to look and taste exactly like real chocolate milk, but is actually a 40 proof alcoholic drink. It even boasts the tag line: “Re-taste your youth at 40 proof.”

The Adult Beverage Company, the makers of Adult Chocolate Milk, Adult Fruit Punch and Adult Orange Cream, may want you to believe they’re marketing these products to an older crowd by using terms like “retro-chic,” but I have a hard time believing that alcoholic beverages that taste and look like kids’ drinks are in no way meant to appeal to young people.

Chocolate milk or booze? One company has started making a strong alcoholic beverage that looks and tastes like chocolate milk.

So what can parents do? While college bans and state restrictions may slow down Four Loko’s growing popularity, it won’t kill it. And even if it did, there’d be similar products to take its place within weeks. While advocacy and government pressure could make life more difficult for companies that make products like Four Loko, it’s doubtful we’ll be able to ever fully stop alcohol companies from creating and marketing products to young people. What we can so is make sure our children understand they’re being targeted by these companies. When a news story on Four Loko comes on your TV, ask your child how he or she feels about alcohol companies that target them specifically. How do they perceive these products, or the intentions of the companies that make them?

Teenagers are far more sophisticated than many give them credit for, and generally speaking, they’re very aware when someone is trying to influence them. As any parent of a teenager will tell you, there are few things a teenager hates more than adults telling them what they should like. Use that friction to open a dialogue with your children about these products and the marketing strategies that drive their success. I think you’ll be surprised at how aware your teenager is of advertising’s sway, and even more surprised by their distain for it. Parental influence won’t shield our kids from predatory marketing campaigns, but through meaningful conversation we can arm them with the knowledge that it’s happening, and hopefully help them make better choices as a result.