The blogospheric consensus is against the FDA move to ban mixtures of alcohol and caffeine. (John Cole speaks for many in calling the decision“complete idiocy.”)* Since a bar can serve both alcohol and coffee or Coke, goes the argument, what’s the point of banning pre-mixed combinations?
* Update John has changed his mind.
The drinks are said by the FDA to be of special concern because the caffeine counters the alcohol’s soporific effects, leading largely young and inexperienced drinkers to drink more, and to perceive themselves as more capable, and less drunk, than they actually are. The science in this area is in its early days and incomplete, but several studies do show cause for concern. One measured the breath-alcohol levels of 623 drinkers — almost all of them students — leaving bars in a Florida university district in 2008. It found those who had consumed alcohol mixed with caffeinated energy drinks were three times more likely to leave the bar highly intoxicated, and four times more likely to intend to drive, compared with drinkers who consumed alcohol alone (D. L. Thombs et al. Add. Behav. 35, 325–330; 2010).
That’s not a knock-down argument for the ban on Four Loco, but it does knock down the counterargument that banning combinations couldn’t possibly matter. Of course it could, since people in bars aren’t optimizing machines. If in fact people get drunker, and less aware of being drunk, consuming combination beverages, that’s a perfectly adequate basis for a ban. Anyone who wants to exercise his sacred an inalienable right to get alertly sozzled can always order some coffee to go with his beer.
The broader point here is that intuitions (often masquerading as principles) derived from markets in ordinary goods often turn out to be false in dealing with goods with a tendency to produce bad habits: with “vices” in one sense of that term. That’s the reason why drug policy makes sense as a field of study while sportscoat policy does not. The
three four key insights from drug policy are:
1. All habit-forming intoxicants are alike, and each of them is different from the others.
2. Most people who use a habit-forming drug never form a bad habit around it, but some of them do, and there’s no simple way to figure out in advance who is at risk. So making a habit-forming drug widely and cheaply available, with heavy marketing, means that a substantial number of people are going to wind up miserable. Nor is there any reason to think that the number of people at risk is constant as the number of readily available drugs expands, because not everyone is at risk from the same drugs. And combinations make the problem worse.
3. In the real world, some of the costs of drug abuse are borne by people who don’t themselves abuse drugs: in the forms of accidents, crimes, and increased bills for auto insurance and health insurance. Taxation can’t, generally, be made to cover those costs without raising the specter of tax evasion and the need for enforcement. Intoxication, by making peopl less sensitive to future costs, makes them less deterrable, so criminalizing the resulting behaviors is not a perfect substitute for controlling the frequency of intoxication. The families and friends of drug abusers also suffer. So drug abuse is not, in fact, “self-regarding behavior.”
4. Fighting drug abuse by reducing availability always has costs: loss of liberty, loss of the benefits of non-abusive drug-taking, and sometimes illicit markets and the need for enforcement. Good policy balances those control costs against the costs of abuse, looking for a system that minimizes total harm.
Consequently, anyone offering a simple “solution” to the drug abuse problem, in the form of maximum controls to produce a “drug-free society” or eliminating prohibitions in favor of “taxation and reguation” or “prevention and treatment” is peddling snake-oil. The costs of drug abuse, and the costs of drug abuse control measures, are both real and inevitable, and the grown-up approach requires facing the tradeoffs squarely rather than pretending they don’t exist.
Historical footnote I’ve been consistent on the alcohol-and-caffeine issue. My friend David Kennedy playfully came up with the idea of caffeinated beer fifteen or twenty years ago. He even had a product name in mind – Whipsaw – and a slogan: “Friends don’t let friends go to sleep drunk.”
And of course once the Whipsaw brand had been established, it could have been extended; as I recall, methamephetamine-and-alcohol was going to be called “PowerSaw.” As further extensions, we could have marketed both non-alcoholic Whipsaw for the abstemious and de-caffeinated Whipsaw for those cutting back on their stimulant load.
Clearly, there was money to be made. But having come up with the idea, David concluded, and I reluctantly agreed, that no amount of money was enough to justify spending our next two incarnations as neutered alley-cats, so we passed up the opportunity.