A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 22, 2012
English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...

Why drink this when you can inhale it?

In our society people tend to stay up later and sleep less than in the past.  As historians have noted, part of this is due to electricity. Of course, there are other factors that have caused people to sleep even less these days. One likely factor is the increase in work (at least for Americans-though we are often cast as lazy, we work more than other Westerners and take less vacation time). Children also are apparently sleeping less, perhaps due to the impact of electronic gadgets and the internet.

Because of the lack of sleep, it is hardly a shock that people have been increasingly turning to energy drinks. While coffee has been around for a long time, recent years have seen the proliferation of high energy drinks. Some of these were combined with alcohol, thus allowing sleepy folks to party all night (and drink themselves into the hospital). Apparently consuming a drink now takes too much time and a new product, AeroShot, is available.

AeroShot is more or less a small plastic tube loaded with caffeine powder. The user inhales it and gets the equivalent of a large cup of coffee in one huff, nicely avoiding all that tedious drinking. Currently it is available in the US and France.

In the United States  the AeroShot was able to bypass FDA testing because it was classified as a dietary supplement. Some critics see this as a dangerous loophole that allows products to get on the market without testing. Others see it as a legitimate category that allows companies to get products on the market without onerous government testing.

In the light of Four Loko (or “blackout in a can” as people called it) it is hardly surprising that Senator Schumer pushed the FDA to review the product. His concern is that kids will abuse the product by taking hit after hit while partying. As might be imagined, this raises the usual moral concerns about testing and limiting products.

On the one hand, the state does have a legitimate moral role in testing products so as to protect citizens from harm. After all, protecting citizens from harm is one of the basic functions of the state-whether that harm comes from foreign invaders, domestic criminals or dangerous products.

If AeroShot does present a health risk, then it would seem to be morally correct for the state to take action, based on the state’s obligation to protect citizens. Naturally, a utilitarian argument can also be made that the state should act in this way to protect the citizens so as to avoid said harms.

On the other hand, caffeine is already an established and accepted (legally and morally) product. As such, concerns about AeroShot’s ingredient would thus seem to also extend to all forms of caffeine. Thus, if it is morally acceptable for people to have access to coffee, then the same would seem to hold true of AeroShot. After all, if the kids want to stay up all night partying, they can legally buy all the coffee they might care to consume and this would seem to make any attempts to limit AeroShots pointless.

One reply is, of course, that the AeroShot makes it easy to rapidly dose oneself with caffeine. As noted above, a quick huff of AeroShot is like drinking a large cup of coffee. In the case of a large cup of coffee, the time to consume it will be longer and there is also the rather important fact that the coffee will fill up the drinker’s stomach, thus limiting the dosage.  Thus, the concern about AeroShot is not so much that it contains a lot of caffeine but that it provides a very rapid and efficient means of delivering caffeine.

The obvious counter to this is that kids can go to the grocery store and buy a bottle of caffeine tablets quite legally. These tablets have 200 mg of caffeine (twice that of the dose in the AeroShot) and usually sell for $5-1o per 100 tablets (AeroShot sells for $2.99 a dose). Taking a tablet is far quicker than drinking a cup of coffee and tablets are rather small relative to the volume of a cup of coffee. As such, these tablets would seem to be as dangerous as AeroShot (if not more so, since they are cheaper and have more caffeine per dose). As such, if these tablets are morally and legally acceptable, than AeroShot would seem to be just as acceptable.

One final counter is that perhaps AeroShot poses a special threat because it is “cool.” That is, kids will be more inclined to overuse AeroShots because of the novelty of inhaling caffeine relative to drinking it or taking a tablet. While this is a point of concern, there is the obvious worry that restricting such a product on the basis of its “coolness” rather than its contents would be rather problematic. After all, how would labs test for “coolness” and how would such a standard be established in a principled way?

People more cynical than I might suspect that the “attack” on AeroShot was motivated by some factors other than concern for the youth, such as the desire to get media attention or to get the makers of AeroShot to cough up lobbying money to ensure that they can keep selling their product (that is, a political shakedown). But, of course, I am not that cynical.

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Blackout Ban

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on November 22, 2010

While drinking until the blackout state is not uncommon among college students, products such as Four Loco changed the drinking game a bit.

What makes drinks like Four Loco special is that they blend a relatively high (relative to beer anyway) alcohol content with a relatively high caffeine content. They also tend to be very cheap relative to other drinks and come in rather large cans relative to the standard beer.

Because of the cheap price and the size of the can, drinkers can get a lot of alcohol for relatively little money and this enables them to drink more. However, what makes them especially dangerous is the caffeine. This enables drinkers to keep on going past the point at which they would normally be forced to stop drinking. This is, of course, why such drinks were making the news: college students were being found blacked out. In some cases, they were originally thought to have been drugged but the damage turned out to be self-inflicted. It is because of the risk posed by these drinks that some think they should not be sold.

On one hand, this seems to be a reasonable and morally correct view. After all, this sort of product has been shown to present a clear danger and the state has a moral duty to protect citizens from harmful products.

However, banning the blackout cans would have but a slight impact on the number of drinking disasters, since students will continue to drink excessively as they have done in the past. The main change is that students will have to go back to getting drunk the way they did before the Four Loco style products hit the market. Also, now that many more students and other drinkers know about the power of caffeine, they can easily make their own blackout drinks by mixing energy drinks with their alcohol of choice. As such, the ban on the blackout could be seen as a mere gesture intended to address a  very specific matter that momentarily made headlines. The underlying causes of the excess drinking and the means to engage in it would remain untouched by the ban. In effect, the drinkers would be only slightly inconvenienced.

To use an analogy, this would be a bit like trying to stop gun deaths by merely banning the sale of preloaded guns, but still allowing people to buy guns and bullets.

It could be replied that the ban will help protect some people: those who do not really understand the power of the blackout can or those who are too lazy to mix alcohol and caffeine on their own. So, perhaps the ban would provide a slight improvement. At least until the next drinking fad comes along.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the ban infringes the rights of the drinkers and the manufacturers of the blackout cans. If it is accepted that people should have the liberty to consume/sell alcohol and caffeine, then it would seem that banning the sale of a product that combines them would violate such liberties. After all, the combination of the two does not create a new drug (like meth) and people still retain the right to mix their own. This would be like arguing that while people have  a right to buy Gatorade mix and water, they have no right to buy pre-mixed Gatorade. So, it could be argued, consistency requires that either the ban extend to all alcohol and caffeine or that the ban be lifted on the blackout cans.

In reply, it could be argued that the blackout cans present a special danger that is not presented by alcohol, caffeine or home made mixes of either. As such, banning it is legitimate since it would protect some people who would otherwise be harmed by the blackout cans.

As noted above, there are probably some drinkers who did not realize exactly what they were getting into when they started drinking from the blackout cans and who did not want (or were too lazy) to mix caffeine and alcohol on their own. These are the sorts of people who would be protected by the ban.  In this case, the state would be limiting liberty to protect those who have poor judgment (or who are lazy).

However, this sort of ban would have a fairly minimal impact. As has been argued, it would only protect those who would only be harmed by the blackout cans and not by other ways of getting drunk. Those who will continue to drink stupidly would not be protected. As such, it would seem to be inconsistent to ban the blackout cans to protect people without banning alcohol and/or caffeine.

This sort of limited ban is, of course, to be expected. These sorts of problems are “addressed” by very limited means aimed at whatever happens to be getting media attention. Meanwhile, the underlying causes and means remain in place.