Letter to FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky on "Alcopops"

May 9, 2001

Mr. Robert Pitofsky
Chairman
Federal Trade Commission
4th Floor
600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20226

Dear Chairman Pitofsky:

I am writing to request that the Federal Trade Commission launch an investigation, pursuant to Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, to determine whether certain labeling and marketing practices for "alcopop" beverages (sweetened, premixed malt beverages and hard lemonades) constitute unfair marketing practices under the Act. Attached for your review is a list of products we believe are aimed primarily at underage consumers.

In particular, we are deeply concerned by the inordinate youth orientation of such alcoholic drinks and their primary appeal to underage consumers. Many of those products have bright, flashy and hip packaging and labeling that attract teenagers to the brands. They are available, often right next to look-alike, non-alcoholic fruit punches and soft drinks in convenience stores and groceries where underage persons can routinely purchase them, despite laws against such sales to people under the age of 21. Television advertising for one of the category's leaders, Mike's Hard Lemonade, has begun only recently, and will reach large audiences of young and underage consumers.

"Alcopop" drinks, including such brands as Mike's Hard Lemonade, Rick's Spiked Hard Lemonade, Hooper's Hooch, Doc Otis' Hard Lemonade, and Smirnoff Ice, represent easy-to-drink "bridge" products that alcohol companies use to move young, "entry-level" consumers from soft drinks (such as fruit punches and sodas) toward experimentation with various types of alcoholic beverages.

Essentially, these "starter drinks" disguise with sugar and fruit flavorings the taste of alcohol and lure some consumers who might otherwise forgo or postpone alcohol use. Although "alcopop" marketers may believe the products are directed to legal-age, entry-level consumers, we have conducted survey and focus-group research that shows that younger people, including teens as young as 14 years old, are more familiar with those products -- and use them more -- than adults. This is not surprising, given their sweet, fruit-drink formulation, the distinctive brightness and attractiveness of their labeling and packaging, and government data that show the average age of initiation to drinking is 13.1 years.

During the past three months, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has conducted two national polls and two focus groups in New York and Massachusetts to assess the appeal of "alcopops" to underage persons in this country [copies of the survey report, quotes from the focus groups, and a video of focus group highlights are attached]. They raise serious questions about the legitimacy of a category of alcoholic beverages designed for and significantly consumed by teens and raise similar questions about the ways in which they are targeted to younger and underage consumers. Following are some of the major findings:

1. Both teenagers and adults recognize that "alcopops" are much more popular among underage drinkers than among adults. More than two-thirds of teens and 72% of adults say that "alcopops" appeal more to underage people than to adults of legal drinking age. Teens are three times as likely to be aware of "alcopops" and nearly twice as likely to have tried them. Compared to adults, 17- to 18-year-olds are more than twice as likely (51% vs. 24%) to have tried alcopops.

2. "Alcopops" appeal to young people because they are sweet, they do not taste like beer or liquor, and they are very easy to get. Teens and adults cite product attributes as the major reasons they believe "alcopops" are marketed to youth. Nine in ten 17- to 18-year- olds and 67% of adults agree that companies make "alcopops" taste like lemonade to lure young people. More than eight in ten teens (83%) say it would be easy for teens to get "alcopops" if they wanted to and nearly half (46%) say it would be very easy.

3. Most teens -- (90%) -- agree that "alcopops" make it more likely that teenagers will try other alcoholic beverages.

4. More than half of teens (53%) say "alcopops" are being marketed to persons 18 or younger; 56% of adults think "alcopops" are being marketed to persons under the legal purchase age for alcohol. Among adults, nearly twice as many believe that those drinks are marketed to people under 21 than to those who are older.

Based on that research, we conclude that the formulation, labeling, packaging, and marketing of "alcopop" drinks primarily target an audience of teenage consumers.

Equally troubling, we found that the labeling and packaging of the products clearly portray products that resemble non-alcoholic fruit-punch beverages and soft drinks far more than they resemble the labels and packaging for beer. Please see the attached photographs of "alcopop" drink containers contrasted with those of non-alcoholic fruit beverages and the leading brands of beer. Two-thirds of the teens interviewed in the CSPI poll thought that "alcopop" product packaging or the way the package or bottle looks are important factors in influencing younger people to at least try them. The products' shelf placement, in many stores, either next to or interspersed with non-alcoholic, fruity soft drinks, also helps to make them indistinguishable from those beverages.

Also attached for your review is a videotape that contains an advertisement for Mike's Hard Lemonade. The black-humor subject matter of this ad (a severely injured construction worker rejects assistance and suggests drinking a Mike's Hard Lemonade) has substantial appeal to youth audiences. In fact, it is not that dissimilar from children's cartoons that feature gratuitous and make-believe violence and injuries. According to Ad Week Magazine, that ad, or others like it, will air on popular television shows such as Saturday Night Live, NYPD Blue, and the Jay Leno Show. Despite the primary adult audience for those shows, many underage people watch as well.

The development and marketing to underage persons of sweet-tasting, easy-to-drink "alcopops" can have serious implications for America's youth and for alcohol-related problems throughout society. More than ten million current drinkers in the United States are between the ages of 12 and 20. A substantial body of research confirms that teens have easy access to alcohol, whether from older friends or from outlets that sell to them illegally at least 50% of the time. By any assessment, alcohol -- not marijuana, not cocaine, not heroin, not ecstasy or LSD -- is the leading drug problem among young people and adults in America. It is also the leading drug killer of our young. Alcohol kills more than six times as many teenagers as all illicit drugs combined and is a major factor in the four leading causes of teen deaths -- motor vehicle crashes, unintentional injuries, homicides, and suicides. According to estimates developed for the U.S. Department of Justice, underage drinking costs our nation $53 billion each year and contributes to violence, crime, rape, and accidental trauma of all kinds. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the current total economic cost of alcohol problems in this country tops $184 billion. More than 105,000 people die each year from alcohol-related causes.

In short, the marketing of "alcopops" to teenagers constitutes an unfair practice under Section 5 of the Act. We call on the FTC to investigate the marketing of "alcopops" to teens and issue orders to force label and packaging changes and reforms at the retail level that will restrict the youth orientation of those products and reduce their substantial appeal to underage consumers. In conducting such an investigation, we respectfully recommend that the FTC work closely with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which approves labels for "alcopop" products. We have also written that agency today, and we attach a copy of that letter.

With this letter we also submit data collected in our two national polls; facts on alcohol and young people; sample comments about "alcopops" by teenagers who participated in focus groups conducted for CSPI; photographs of "alcopop" labeling and comparisons with containers of non-alcoholic fruity drinks and major beer brands; and a videotape of teenagers discussing their attitudes about "alcopop" drinks.

We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

George A. Hacker
Director
Alcohol Policies Project

To view further information on "alcopops," click here.