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New study shows young drinkers still underestimate strong alcopops with new labels

© Kyle James

New serving labels on supersized and super-strength alcopops, which pose unique risks to young drinkers, are not effectively informing most young drinkers about the strength and dangers of the beverage.

That’s the finding of a new study led by Dr Matthew Rossheim at George Mason University’s College of Health and Human Services, which shows more than one-half of those surveyed grossly underestimated the alcohol content of supersized alcopop Four Loko – the most commonly consumed supersized alcopop among underage drinkers in the US.

Four Loko is a sugar-sweetened beverage with as much as 14% alcohol-by-volume (abv) or 5.5 standard alcoholic drinks in one 23.5 oz. can.

This new study, published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, shows that most drinkers are grossly underestimated Four Loko’s alcohol content, despite the beverage bearing new labels, mandated by the Federal Trade Commission.

Rossheim and colleagues surveyed young college students in three states to assess how accurately they could estimate the alcohol content in Four Loko. Using survey data collected in college classrooms, the study found that even when cans included the newly-mandated label, the majority of young adults (57%) underestimated Four Loko’s alcohol content by one or more drinks.

Students were more successful at estimating the alcohol content of Four Loko’s 8% alcohol version (sold in Montana) than its higher alcohol concentration versions (sold in Virginia and Florida). More than 60% of Florida students and more than 70% of Virginia students underestimated Four Loko’s alcohol content by one or more standard drinks, compared to 45% of Montana students. Moreover, nearly one-third (31%) of participants in Florida and nearly one-half (49%) of participants in Virginia underestimated the alcohol content of Four Loko by two or more standard drinks, compared to only 4% in Montana.

“Even with the FTC-mandated labels, college students are drastically underestimating the amount of alcohol in a single can. In states that sell 12% abv Four Loko, 65% of students underestimated it alcohol content by at least one drink and 38% underestimates by two or more drinks,” explains Rossheim. “This underestimation is dangerous and could lead to overconsumption, blacking out, and decisions to drive after drinking, among other risky behaviors.”

Females were twice as likely as males to underestimate alcohol content by one or more drinks and three times as likely to underestimate alcohol content by two or more drinks. Students who had never heard of or seen Four Loko before were also twice as likely to underestimate the alcohol content by one or more drinks compared to those who were aware of it.

The research follows a companion study, published in August in the same journal, which assessed first time consumption of Four Loko among college students. Drawing on the experiences of 336 underage college students at universities in Virginia, Florida, and Montana, the study found that nearly all respondents who had consumed Four Loko first did so while underage (93%).

Elsewhere, following the death of a 14-year old girl who had consumed supersized alcopops, Canada reclassified the beverages last May and restricted the alcohol content in each container to 1.5 standard alcoholic drinks.

In 2015, 17 U.S. State Attorneys General wrote to the manufacturer of Four Loko requesting that they reduce the abv of their product from 12% to the industry standard of 8%. Beyond ignoring this request, the manufacturers have since released several new flavors with even greater alcohol content, 14% abv.

“These products now deliver almost a six-pack of beer’s worth of alcohol in a single serving can,” said Rossheim. “In the absence of voluntary action, it is urgently important that legal or regulatory actions are taken to reduce the abv of supersized alcopops, to mitigate the risks they pose to young people.”


*Reposted with permission from George Mason University*