Prohibitionists: Leave Us Alone!

John Stossel

1/5/2011 12:01:00 AM - John Stossel

Sometimes I drink Scotch and then, to wake myself up, I drink coffee. So what? Many people consume mixtures of caffeine and alcohol in drinks like rum and Coke. Again, so what?

But recently some college kids started drinking pre-mixed combos of alcohol and caffeine with names like Four Loko and Moonshot '69. Moonshot '69 is a pilsner beer with less than a coffee cup's worth of caffeine. Until recently, Four Loko contained 12 percent alcohol -- about the same as wine -- and as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. A few students, after drinking Four Loko, landed in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. Naturally, hysterical news reports followed.

A new bogeyman was born: caffeinated alcoholic beverages.

As night follows day, the Food and Drug Administration in November ordered beverage companies to lose the caffeine or shut down. The FDA called caffeine an "unsafe food additive." Phusion Products says it will now produce only noncaffeinated Four Loko. Moonshot '69 is off the market for now, which is bad news for Rhonda Kallman, who founded the company that makes it, New Century Brewing.

"There is nothing new about adults combining caffeine and alcohol," Kallman writes on her company website. "Who hasn't enjoyed a rum and Coke, Irish coffee, Kahlua or espresso martini? ... Moonshot '69 is a beer for beer drinkers that has been enjoyed by craft-beer lovers since 2004."

Her online petition states: "We the undersigned support the right of responsible adults to choose the beer of their choice. We support Moonshot69 and the rights of craft brewers across the country to produce new and innovative offerings for the beer drinking public. ... We call on the federal government to adhere to responsible regulation of alcoholic beverages that allows adults to enjoy the beer of their choice."

Unfortunately, Kallman tries to separate her product from higher-alcohol FDA targets, but Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine argues that the FDA has no business limiting the sale of any of the alcohol/caffeine combos.

"This has been going on for as long as there have been colleges and universities," he said. "You can go back to the Middle Ages, and booze and students go together like, I guess, beer and caffeine.

Aren't some drinks more dangerous than others?

"I don't think so. But when we raised the drinking age to 21 ... we told young people ... you can vote, you can enter a contract, you can go to war, you can die for your country, but if you want to drink and you're going to college, you better go off campus into a basement apartment somewhere and chug like there's no tomorrow because you don't know when you're going to be able to get drunk again."

He points out that by forbidding pre-21 adults from drinking openly around their elders, we deny them the chance to be exposed to responsible drinking.

About the ban on caffeinated alcoholic drinks, he added, "You can't minimize the overreach by the FDA."

I asked the FDA why Moonshot '69 is included on the ban list when it's not marketed to pre-21 adults and it contains less alcohol than more sugary drinks. They replied that Moonshot was referred to the agency by state attorneys general concerned about alcohol and caffeine. The FDA asked New Century Brewing for data indicating the legal standard for safety had been met, but no data was provided.

Kallman points out that the FDA "didn't fully research it either. So they put the onus on the small entrepreneur to have a scientist. But at the end of the day, it's 5 percent alcohol by volume and less than a half a cup of coffee of natural caffeine. Where will they stop?"

Never. Government never stops.

Gillespie added, "What we should be having instead of bans (of) beverages that people like and ... consume responsibly is ... a national conversation about how, after a couple of hundred years of the American experiment, we can get past the prohibitionist mindset and teach people how to drink responsibly like they do in France, Italy, Spain and many other parts of the world."