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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