It turns out that the caffeine/alcohol combination per se was not the problem with Four Loko: it was the way this combination was marketed and in turn the way the product was actually used. Each can of Four Loko is almost twice the size of a normal can or bottle of beer, with an alcohol concentration almost three times as high. This means that a single can nearly matches the alcohol content of a six-pack. With its sweet flavor, it would go down much more quickly than the equivalent amount of beer (or even a similarly charged half-pint of whiskey). And the key concern: stimulants including caffeine allow the consumer to drink many more of these than would otherwise be possible before noticing signs of intoxication. In other words, the caffeine removes even the limited amount of self-awareness that usually accompanies heavy drinking. As has been demonstrated, the results can be dangerous. I am not aware, however, of any direct comparisons between this mode of intoxication and more traditional social lubricants, such as cheap beer.
The comparison to traditional coffee is much closer to my area of interest, and a few key distinctions are worth noting. First, for those interested strictly in the deliver of caffeine and alcohol, traditional coffee cocktails or liqueurs are more expensive than the current wave of party drinks. (Four Loko, of course, is just one of several brands available.) The higher prices are supported by a completely different demographic, willing to pay more per drink for the flavor, and perhaps for the oddly soothing combination of stimulant and depressant in an Irish Coffee or White Russian. These have roughly the equivalent of one cup of coffee and one beer or 1/10 cup of coffee and 2 beers, respectively, compared to one cup of coffee and six beers for the Four Loko can).
I emphasize per drink because consumption of specialty coffee cocktails is very likely to stop at one, perhaps two servings. As noted in the NY Times Spiked Coffee story, these beverages are typically consumed between 10 and 11 p.m., an hour suggesting the slight extension of an evening out, rather than a party-til-dawn rave.
In addition to a difference in dose, of course, is a difference in flavor and quality. I have to admit that I have not tried Four Loko, but I am pretty nonetheless pretty certain that the focus has not been on these factors. The caffeine in these drinks does not even come from coffee, but rather from the process of decaffeination. In the case of Kahlua, the caffeine comes not merely from real coffee, but from real, shade-grown Veracruz coffee. Similarly, the bartenders covered by the NY Times are using specialty coffee, including some from one of my favorite coffee companies.
It is for these reasons that -- although they seem similar at one level -- brands such as Kahlua and Allen's Coffee Brandy are likely to be on shelves for years to come.
It appears that Four Loko's producers are determined to stay on shelves as well. Having built a brand but facing serious state and federal sanctions, the company has decided to cut its losses by eliminating three of the four key ingredients. Which did the company decide is most important? Alcohol.