“Alcopop” labels dupe consumers and regulators

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ATF lets liquor-branded alcopops fool adults, target kids

Makers of the controversial drinks known as “alcopops” are purposefully tricking American consumers and duping sleepy regulators at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), says the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The group charged that makers of the sweet-tasting drinks that bear familiar liquor-brand names like Smirnoff, Bacardi, or Stolichnaya want consumers to believe that those drinks actually contain prestigious high-end hard liquors—and not the comparatively cheap alcohol and artificial flavorings that they actually contain.

CSPI also charged that ATF lets hard-liquor-branded alcopops play by beer’s rules when it comes to advertising, taxation, and marketing—even though the alcohol in alcopops may not come from fermented malt. Published reports and industry documents indicate that much of the alcohol in these drinks comes from alcohol-containing flavoring agents rather than fermented malt. That distinction is important to state regulators who determine where different types of alcoholic products can be sold and at what rates they should be taxed.

“The Bureau’s gullibility has let alcopop peddlers enjoy the best of both worlds,” said George A. Hacker, director of CSPI’s alcohol policies project. “They get to deceive adult consumers about the true nature of these products, they get to put these hard-liquor brand names in front of very young audiences, and they pay unacceptably low taxes. According to ATF, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a turkey.”

CSPI today released new survey research data that show that large pluralities of adults believe alcopops are more like liquor than wine or beer. The survey of 500 adults, conducted by Global Strategy Group, and a similar survey of teens conducted in July, show widespread confusion about what’s in the drinks, and show that kids are more likely than adults to have seen ads for the drinks. Among the findings:

  • Adults are five times more likely to believe that Bacardi Silver is more like liquor (49%) than beer (9%) and 38 percent are unsure. Last July CSPI research found that teens were twice as likely (42%) to think Bacardi Silver was more like liquor than beer.
  • Adults are three times more likely to believe that Smirnoff Ice is more like liquor (47%) than beer (14%) and 29 percent are unsure. 36 percent of teens think Smirnoff Ice is more like liquor compared to 32 percent who think it is more like beer.

According to CSPI, those data clearly debunk ATF’s contention, as expressed in an Industry Circular earlier this year, that using liquor brand names and logos on bottles, labels and in advertising for alcopops “is not in itself misleading.” Many, according to the data, are clearly misled. While consumer deception should be reason enough for ATF to act, says CSPI, the more ominous consequence of ATF’s April ruling is that millions of underage kids are now exposed to liquor ads.

Unlike hard liquor, liquor-branded alcopops are free to advertise on network television as if they were beers. And unlike hard liquor, liquor-branded alcopops are often found on grocery and convenience store shelves. Alcopops now have access to nearly eight times as many outlets as they would have if they were classified as liquor products.

Alcopop marketing tactics are clearly making greater inroads with kids than adults, according to CSPI’s data:

  • 62 percent of teens, compared to 46 percent of adults, have seen ads for Smirnoff Ice.
  • 40 percent of teens, compared to 27 percent of adults, have seen ads for Bacardi Silver.
  • 30 percent of teens, compared to 27 percent of adults, have seen ads for Skyy Blue.

Pressed by state regulators, ATF has been investigating the exact source of alcohol in alcopops to determine whether they should be taxed at the higher liquor rate and sold only at liquor outlets. In September a coalition of 38 health, consumer, and family groups urged ATF to expand the scope of its current investigation to consider public health and safety issues and underage drinking.

In a letter today to ATF director Bradley Buckles, Hacker called on ATF to design rules that recognize the unique hybrid nature of alcopops. “Once again, we urge ATF to promulgate regulations that simultaneously remedy adult consumers’ confusion over liquor-branded alcopops, and to stop marketing tactics whose raison d’etre is to build hard-liquor brand loyalty among underage drinkers,” Hacker wrote.