"We will restore science to its rightful place." Thus spake Barack Obama in his inaugural address almost two years ago. I wrote then about how this simple pledge might be applied to alcohol policy.
Alas, the rightful place of science in Obama's FDA appears to be where it always has been, firmly behind political pandering in the policymaking pecking order.
Yesterday, the FDA declared that caffeine when added to an alcoholic beverage becomes an "unsafe food additive." FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the combination of caffeine and alcohol is a public health concern because it can lead to "a state of wide-awake drunk." The FDA said experts have raised concerns that caffeine can mask a person's feeling of intoxication, leading to risky behavior.
I challenge you to review the science upon which these claims are based. Hell, I challenge you to even find the science on which these claims are based. Today's announcement was supported with press releases and sound bites, not scientific studies, not even abstracts. The press releases have footnotes, sure, but good luck finding the sources.
Science, remember, is the objective search for answers. It is not the pursuit of evidence to support conclusions that have already been reached. Most of the 'science' cited to support the claims about Four Loko, Joose, and the other alcoholic energy drinks falls into the latter category.
Until about a month ago, I had never heard of Four Loko or Joose. Now they are everywhere. Hey, kids, want to know the best way to get really blasted? The answer is on the front page of yesterday's Chicago Tribune. Or the Huffington Post, or wherever you get your news. It's everywhere.
People, especially young people, believe a lot of myths about alcohol. One of the biggest is that some forms of alcohol are inherently more dangerous than others. What we should teach is that all alcoholic drinks are equally hazardous because what makes them so is alcohol, that it is possible to have fun with alcohol without endangering your health, and that stimulants--whether it's caffeine or methamphetamine--combined with alcohol will add another dimension to your intoxication, but they won't let you get more drunk or let you keep drinking longer or any of those other things. It won't help you be higher for longer so you can have an even better time.
Those are myths. They aren't true. If you drink too much alcohol too fast you will get sick and might die. That's true. The other stuff isn't. The stuff about drinking too much too fast is important. That other stuff isn't.
But, dude, the FDA says it is true, they say the whole caffeine-and-alcohol thing works, so party on!
That's the problem. By reinforcing the false belief that these products do exactly what the critics claim they do, they're making them that much more desirable to their target audience. Now that the practice of combining alcohol and caffeine to achieve "a state of wide-awake drunk" has been endorsed by the FDA, America's fraternities, sororities, and other drinking societies are rapidly updating their party punch recipes to include mega doses of caffeine, guarana and taurine along with the Everclear and Kool Aid. That is, if they didn't do it already years ago.
The Romans talked about "bread and circuses." Leaders manage the masses by keeping them fed and distracted. Our politics today isn't so much polarized as it is dominated by shiny objects meant to keep us from noticing important things that either aren't being done or are being done contrary to our wishes and interests, which is not the new day we were promised. It is not what Obama promised in 2008, nor is it what the tea party promised in 2010. Today the nanny state exposed itself and the tea party blinked.
Same as the old boss.
I need a drink.