Four Loko and the history of banned drinks with Daniel Okrent

Historians in the News

Four Loko -- the latest wildly popular, wildly caffeinated, wildly alcoholic beverage to take hold with recreational drinkers -- is not long for the Big Apple. On Sunday, Gov. Paterson announced New York would join a growing number of states, including Michigan, Washington, Utah and Oklahoma, that have banned the sweet, fruity concoction, nicknamed"blackout in a can" and" liquid crack." In addition to being super-potent (one 23.5-ounce can has as much alcohol as three beers and one to two servings of coffee), Four Loko has also been linked to several alcohol-related deaths and sicknesses (including the June beating of gay teenager in the Bronx) -- so many, in fact, that the FDA is now reconsidering its approval of the product.

The beverage is just the latest in a rash of"demon drinks" to incite public outrage. It was only last year that another alcoholic energy beverage, Sparks, removed the caffeine amid public pressure. Everclear, a grain alcohol that boasts 95 percent alcohol, is banned in several states. Even Cristal, the signature hip-hop drink, was branded racist by Jay-Z in 2006, prompting a boycott of the brand. And, of course, there is the much-mythologized absinthe.

So where does the Four Loko ban figure in the history of taboo spirits? To get some historical perspective, we turned to Dan Okrent, the former public editor of the New York Times and an expert on the biggest ban in alcohol history: Prohibition. Okrent's book."The Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition" is the definitive history of the period. Salon spoke with him over the phone about how moral outrage over alcohol is different today than 80 years ago, and whether the banning of a drink can actually make it more popular.

What other drinks have met with this type of controversy?

Absinthe was outlawed because it was 150-proof. And at the time there were the same sort of arguments: that it was causing brain damage and hallucinations, and it was doing terrible things to people. That was the argument. Whether or not it's true, I don't know....

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