Anatomy of the demise of Four Loko

Liz Goodwin

In honor of the likely demise of the controversial caffeinated alcoholic beverage Four Loko, we at The Lookout have put together a time line documenting the beverage's surprisingly rapid rise and fall since its woozy 2005 inception at the hands of a group of Ohio State University students. We highlight the company's PR response every step of the way, since throughout the drink's lurch into ill repute, the makers of Four Loko have run the emotional gamut in their public statements from confidently unresponsive to angry to contrite — and then back again. In a letter dated this month, Four Loko's founders admitted they were "late to the game in publicly addressing some of the criticisms of our products."

Enjoy responsibly!

(One can of Four Loko, seen at right, contains the equivalent of five beers and three cups of coffee, though as you'll see below, Four Loko's PR rep doesn't like that estimate.)

August 2009: After 25 attorneys general requested an investigation of caffeinated booze, Chris Hunter of Phusion Projects, which makes Four Loko, declined to comment to the L.A. Times, saying only that "we're letting our products speak for themselves." Some might say that was the trouble to begin with.

November 2009: The FDA asks makers of alcoholic energy drinks to prove their products are safe, putting them on notice that they would be investigated.

August 2010: A crumpled can of Four Loko is found in a the "mangled remains" of an Orange County man's car, which he crashed, killing his three sons. "This tragedy speaks to the serious, societal concerns regarding the misuse of alcohol in our society — alcohol abuse, drunk driving and underage drinking are problems we would all like to see discussed and solved," Chris Hunter said in a statement to the Orlando Sentinel, which quoted experts saying that Four Loko is particularly harmful.

September 2010: New Jersey's Ramapo College bans the drink after 17 students and six others are sickened by a Four Loko binge. Phusion doesn't return the AP's request for comment.

October 8: Twelve Central Washington students are hospitalized after drinking at a party. After evaluating the patients' symptoms, authorities suspect they've been dose with a date-rape drug. But...

October 25: It turns out there was no date-rape drug. Nine of the hospitalized students were drinking Four Loko. Phusion again tried floating a high-road public statement — while also taking care to call out other intoxicating substances as potential culprits. "The unacceptable incident at Central Washington University, which appears to have involved hard liquor, such as vodka and rum, beer, our products, and possibly illicit substances, is precisely why we go to great lengths to ensure our products are not sold to underage consumers and are not abused," Phusion Projects said in a statement.

October 27: Four Loko's PR rep quibbles with a reporter about how much alcohol is in a can of Four Loko in a story he wrote about the Central Washington University incident. (Answer: About 5 beers or "standard drinks.")

October 30: New York Times critic Frank Bruni declares Four Loko is "a booze delivery system that is as cloying, deceptive and divorced from the usual smells, tastes and presentation of alcohol as possible," after heavily sampling the beverage for a review.

November 4: Phusion's founders send a letter [PDF] to 300 college officials offering to "discuss ways we could provide direct assistance to your university to help further responsible drinking education on your campus."

Michigan bans Four Loko, and Chicago's city council threatens to follow suit. Phusion gets angry. "We're disappointed by the recent call to ban our product from being sold in Chicago, where our company is headquartered, because we know curbing alcohol abuse will not be accomplished by singling out a lone product or beverage category," the company said in a statement.

November 10: The state of Washington announces a ban on the drink. A Phusion Projects spokesman is unavailable for comment for the CBS News story.

November 11: A Spokane, Washington, store sells 30 cases of Four Loko to customers anticipating the ban.

November 15: Phusion agrees to a ban of Four Loko in New York, saying it now wants to be known for being cooperative. "We were the first company to take this voluntary step," co-founder Jaisen Freeman said. "And we think it shows that we are not turning a deaf ear to what's going on: that a select few have chosen to abuse our products, drink them while underage or break the law and sell them to minors."

November 16: Phusion Projects announces it will voluntarily remove caffeine from Four Loko. "We are taking this step after trying — unsuccessfully — to navigate a difficult and politically charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels," a spokesman said.

Parents of 20-year-old Florida suicide victim Jason Keiran announce they are suing Phusion Projects because he took his life after drinking copious amounts of the beverage. The company has no comment.

November 17: The FDA and FTC say caffeine in alcoholic drinks is unsafe and is preparing a crackdown on Four Loko and other energy booze drinks. Sen. Chuck Schumer says the agencies will pursue an outright ban.

Brooklyn Democratic Assemblyman Felix Ortiz chugs Four Loko for an hour and then vomits to prove the stuff is bad for you — just in case anyone hadn't been following the news recently.

(Photo, can of Four Loko and a nonalcoholic drink side-by-side: AP)

UPDATE: This post has been updated to include Chicago's discussion of a ban.