Statement of George A. Hacker
Director, Alcohol Policies Project
Press Conference on the Marketing of "Alcopops" to Teens
May 9, 2001

Good morning. Thank you for coming. I'm George Hacker and I direct the alcohol policies project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Today, we are releasing findings from two national polls of teenagers and adults about new soda-pop-like, malt-based alcoholic beverages. "Alcopops," which have been introduced previously in Great Britain and Australia, have not yet been heavily advertised in this country, although that may soon change. For that reason, many adults, parents, and health officials are unfamiliar with the new drinks, and have not yet recognized the growing threat they pose to the health and safety of American teenagers.

Alcohol producers are developing -- and have begun to aggressively market -- "starter brews" aimed at entry-level drinkers and consumers who don't like the taste of alcohol. Predictably, those "alcopops" have captured the attention of teenagers and have helped introduce them, prematurely, into a drinking lifestyle. Such new hard lemonades and fruit-flavored malt beverages make it easier than ever for teens to begin drinking and move on to more traditional alcoholic beverages. The cute and colorfully packaged new brands include Mike's Hard Lemonade, Rick's Spiked Hard Lemonade, Doc Otis, Jed's, Hooper's Hooch, and Smirnoff Ice, among many others.

Industry marketing of these "starter suds" is partly to blame for their growing appeal to young people. Although the labels of many of the products disclose alcohol content, their color and design play up the products' soft-drink taste. Their label designs, in contrast to those of the major beers, are flashy and bright, and appeal to young boys and girls. Their men's names -- Mike's, Rick's, Jed's, Doc Otis, Hooper's Hooch -- conjure a personal relationship with the product. On top of that, they're generally available at convenience stores and small groceries, often right next to non-alcoholic fruit drinks and refreshers. Those are just the places where teenagers, particularly 17- and 18-year-olds, easily buy them, though laws prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages to underage persons. So much for laws that so often go unheeded and unenforced.

Parents, health professionals, law enforcement officials, government regulators, and policy makers have cause for concern. By any assessment, alcohol -- not marijuana, not cocaine, not heroin, not ecstasy or LSD -- is the leading drug problem among young people in America. It is also the leading drug killer. 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 traumas of all kinds.

Drinking at an early age also increases the risk of alcohol dependence and illicit drug use later in life. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a young person who starts to drink before age 15 is four times more likely to become alcohol dependent than someone who begins at age 21. Those same young people represent the booze industry's future best customers and the companies' best prospects for substantial future profits. So it's not surprising that they would develop and distribute products that appeal so strongly to teenagers. What is surprising, and indefensible, is government's complicity in handing our kids over to alcohol producers.

Earlier this spring, the Center for Science in the Public Interest commissioned Penn, Schoen & Berland to conduct focus groups and two national surveys to assess youth and adult attitudes toward these new "beers with training wheels." The teens we talked to knew about "alcopops" -- even more than adults, by a three to one margin. Compared to teens, adults are virtually clueless about those "starter drinks." Not surprisingly, many more teens than adults had also tried them. And most believed that the products were directly aimed at them. "Alcopops" are not drinks intended for adults, but rather, gateway drugs designed to ease young people into drinking and to pave the way to more traditional alcoholic beverages. Marty McGough of Penn, Schoen and Berland will detail the survey results later in his presentation. Here's a short clip from focus groups of 15- to 17- year-olds in Westchester County, New York, and Newton, Massachusetts. It gives a good indication of what teens are saying about alcopops.

Currently, "alcopops" are not nearly as much consumed as beer, but their sales are rising rapidly. Shipments of some brands are up dramatically in the past year. With the high-school prom and graduation season and summer approaching, producers have begun to invest more heavily in television and related advertising and marketing campaigns. Such efforts will influence increasingly large audiences of underage consumers. This is no time for complacency about "alcopop" drinks that have already caught the fancy of teenage drinkers in America.

Today the Center for Science in the Public Interest calls on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take action to protect our children from industry's marketing of these "starter suds" drinks. BATF reviewed, and apparently routinely, approved dozens of labels for youth-oriented "alcopop" drinks. At the very least, BATF should immediately revoke label approval for all youth-oriented, sweetened malt beverages until producers fully and publicly disclose their marketing plans, assess the impact of their products on underage consumers, and agree to re-design container labels, packaging and marketing practices to avoid appeals to underage persons and confusion with non-alcoholic beverages. If BATF, which regulates the labeling of alcoholic beverages, lacks statutory authority to demand those requirements, then that agency should seek the necessary authority from Congress.

Similarly, we're asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the marketing of "alcopops" to teens constitutes a violation of its "unfairness" standards under section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. To reduce the appeal of those drinks to underage persons, we believe the FTC should require the separation, in the coolers and on the shelves of retail outlets, of "alcopops" from non-alcoholic products. In addition, the FTC should demand that label statements and label and packaging design clearly and conspicuously disclose the alcoholic content -- expressed as a percentage of volume as well as in number of standard drinks per container -- of these starter drinks and diminish their attractiveness to teens.

We also call on responsible retailers -- convenience stores, grocery stores, and liquor stores -- to stop stocking "alcopop" drinks until the above recommendations are implemented.

Some four decades ago anti-smoking activists objected to the packaging and sale of "look-alike" candy cigarettes that lured kids into a smoking habit. Today, cigarette producers and major retailers, including 7-Eleven corporate stores, have distanced themselves from such products because they don't want to send the wrong message. As bad as candy might be, those "smoking toys" are merely sugar. "Alcopops" are the real thing. The kick without the bad taste of alcohol. A drug-delivery device for teens. It's high time for government to declare our children off limits to alcohol producers.

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