American businesses have a long and storied history of shilling products to international customers that have either been banned or have seen a precipitous decline in popularity domestically.
The once-massive brand that is Four Loko seems to be joining that bandwagon. The drink has recently been making steady inroads into the massive Chinese market. Meanwhile, its popularity has seriously waned in the US, thanks to regulatory crackdowns, some bad press, and lots of upset parents. Now, it appears as if vendors and sellers operating on online shopping portals like Alibaba, Taobao, and JD.com, are marketing Loko under some pretty enticing logos: "Blackout in a can," "deflowered wine", and shi shen jiu, meaning "lose virginity liquor."
Four Loko, which was originally sold in the US as a combination of caffeine, malt liquor, and two stimulants—guarana and taurine—has been around for about ten years now. In 2010, though, the FDA issued a warning letter to Phusion Projects, the Chicago manufacturers of the drink, saying that the beverage could be hazardous to people's health. Over a dozen states banned the drink, and in 2014, Phusion reached an agreement with 20 attorney generals from various states, saying it would stop producing and selling caffeinated alcoholic beverages nationwide.
The problems that were attributed to Four Loko's original formulation included the hospitalization of nine students in Washington, and even the suicide of a 20-year-old in Florida. Now that the beverage is being sold in China, it is beginning to leave a similar wake there: Four young women in Nanjing were reported to have passed out and been robbed after imbibing Four Loko recently.
According to Quartz, Phusion Projects is allegedly relying primarily on Alibaba and JD.com to sell the drink in China, but it is also available through liquor distribution agents. Prices range from $4 all the way up to $15 per can. Xinhua, a state-run media outlet, says that no Chinese manufacturers are making the drink, so the stuff for sale must be imported. The ingredients in the Four Loko now being sold in China appear to vary; on Tmall the product advertised says it is caffeine-free and contains 14 percent alcohol, while on Tabao, the ingredients include 12 percent alcohol, caffeine, and "amino acids for energy."
MUNCHIES reached out to Phusion Projects for comment, and a representative told us that Phusion has "no connection whatsoever to these portals and has not authorized these false and misleading statements about our products. Our products are imported into China through a third party importer, and then sold to a distributor network and then to retail. We are committed to marketing our products responsibly and would never make such claims about them."
Several commenters on Weibo have raised doubt as to whether China will crack down on the sale of Four Loko there. Even though China has historically been notoriously lax when it comes to the regulation of food safety, the nation did recently pass a new food safety law as well as a new law regarding truth in advertising. Whether or not these new regulations will be used to curtail the sale of everyone's favorite "lose virginity liquor" remains to be seen, though. In the meantime, Fusion tells MUNCHIES it will "investigate the proper mediums to have these articles removed immediately and if they are not removed, we are prepared to take swift legal action."
Only time will tell what the fate of Four Loko and Phusion Projects will be in the lucrative market that is the Middle Kingdom.