Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Alcoholic Energy Drinks, Part Two.

I received a prompt answer to my inquiry to Senator Steans. It's a good answer; factual and reasonable, at least as far as it goes. What I wrote to her is here. This is her answer:

Thanks for your e-mail. The products in question are named Tilt, Sparks, BudExtra, and LiquidCharge and are manufactured by Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co. These beverages are over 6% alcohol. My staff members have found Tilt and Sparks in grocery stores in the district. While they are located in the alcohol aisle, the products look so much like normal energy drinks that when my 24 year old intern purchased one in a local store, along with non-alcoholic drinks, he wasn’t carded.

All over the country, police officers and parents have complained that these beverages look so much like energy drinks that it is difficult to tell them apart. Here are links to a few news articles about alcopop energy drinks, reporting on this labeling issue:

(She provided one, here.)

This new legislation in Illinois changes the labeling requirements so that consumers can clearly tell that this product is alcohol. The labels on beverages in Illinois have already changed. Pictures of the previous product labels are available here. We took these pictures after purchasing the beverages locally.

These products are being marketed towards young people. Attorney generals from 30 states have written a letter to federal authorities expressing concerns over the marketing of these beverages. For example, you can see the website for Sparks at This site is clearly youth-oriented, even cartoonish in nature. Several of these beverages advertise on facebook and myspace, used by millions of teenagers.

While I am pleased to have been able to address this issue, I believe there are far more serious problems we need to tackle, including the need for higher quality education for all kids in the state, reducing the regressive nature of our taxes, changing our culture of corruption, decreasing violence in our communities, and addressing our state’s fiscal crisis. I am working on these issues as well, and appreciate any suggestions regarding other concerns you feel we should be addressing at the State level.

Heather Steans

Alcoholic energy drinks have been around for a couple of years. They haven't been particularly successful and their footprint in the marketplace is very small. They are like Smirnoff Ice and its ilk in that they are beer with most of the flavor and color stripped away, to be replaced by sweet citrus fruit flavors. Like Red Bull and other energy drinks they contain caffeine, taurine and ginseng.

As the Toledo Blade article points out, it should concern parents if their kids are consuming large quantities of even the non-alcoholic energy drinks.

I'm pretty much with Senator Steans through her third paragraph. We part company at the part about them being marketed to kids. Yes, the products are being marketed to young adults, but the web site she cited has an age requirement like all alcoholic beverage sites, and standard alcohol warnings, and the "cartoonish" claim, dubious even if true, isn't.

I don't know if I would go so far as to call these products irresponsible, but they may well be a bad idea for their makers. I haven't had one and don't know the actual effect but alcohol is a depressant and the other active ingredients are stimulants so, on paper at least, the effect should be ... nothing. They should cancel each other out, though it probably doesn't work that way. I know plenty of people who drink vodka and Red Bull or Jaegermeister and Red Bull. It just seems like a bad idea, no matter who is doing it.

The fact that some retail clerks are unfamiliar with these products, may not realize they're alcohol, and may not card purchasers is a problem. It's a problem for retailers because that's a very easy way to lose your license. It's also a problem for producers, image-wise. As someone who would like to see the whole beverage alcohol industry be less harassed, these products are not helpful.

The pictures she pointed to, of the old and new packaging, don't show much. Ironically, because these are marketed as malt beverages, not beer, they are able to show their alcohol content on the label. In most states, beers are prohibited from putting their alcohol content on the label, which was supposed to prevent brewers from competing to offer the highest alcohol content products. That worked well. Senator Steans might want to look into changing Illinois law to require all beverage alcohol labels to clearly state the product's alcohol content.

The last paragraph of Senator Steans' reply is also somewhat disingenuous, in that it was she who listed that legislation first among her personal legislative accomplishments in her legislative update.

But it's the advertising-to-children claim that always gets my goat. As with the character dubbed "Joe Camel," ads are deemed to be directed at children solely because they are illustrated. Illustrations, especially those that can be characterized as cartoons, appeal to children, ergo Joe Camel was being used to advertise cigarettes to children. It became an article of faith among anti-smoking activists, then came to be treated as a statement of fact. There was never one iota of evidence presented that Joe Camel was intended to influence children or ever used in such a way as to reach children. The charge was based solely on the conclusion that Joe Camel must be targeted at children because he is a cartoon character.

Likewise, "alcopop" is a term of derision coined by anti-alcohol activists (aka neo-prohbitionists). That term has never been used by the producers. The non-energy versions of these products have been around for many years – the Coors product Zima was the prototype.

Like their energy counterparts, those products are deemed by their critics to be directed at children solely because they taste good, and taste similar to soda pop. The fact that most of these products bear the names of well-known distilled spirits brands is further evidence that they are not trying to pretend they are anything other than alcoholic beverages intended for legal age adults. This is not true of the alcoholic energy drinks, but it doesn't seem to matter. The same critics are making all of the same claims.

Most beverage alcohol advertising is directed at young adults, as is most advertising for automobiles, music, electronics, clothing, health and beauty aids, and a wide range of other consumer products. Young adults are attractive to advertisers because they are still forming brand preferences. Also fundamental is that there is no way to create advertising that will appeal to persons of legal age but won't appeal to anyone younger than legal age. There is not some kind of switch that is thrown at age 18 or 21. Kids, especially older kids, like many of the same things young adults like. It is not possible to effectively advertise to persons at the low end of the legal age scale without some of that advertising reaching individuals at the high end of non-legal age.

This is why claims that certain products or ads are nefariously directed at children are, at best, an unfounded personal opinion and, at worst, a deliberate falsehood.

There is one objective way to determine if advertising is directed at children, and that is by examining the medium in which it is run and determining who views or hears that medium. The standard followed by the beverage alcohol industry is that advertising for those products is placed only in magazines, on television shows, on radio shows, or in other media, where at least 70 percent of the audience is expected to be adults. The Federal Trade Commission has consistently found that the beverage alcohol industry adheres to those guidelines and, therefore, does not market to underage consumers.

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