Groups demand government investigate "starter suds"

WASHINGTON - Alcohol producers have a new treat for teenagers as prom and graduation party season begins. A poll conducted for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, Inc. shows that “alcopop” beverages (sweet, fruit-flavored, malt-based drinks) appeal more to teenagers than to adults and that teens are more likely to consume them.

New beverages, including Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Rick’s Spiked Lemonade, Doc Otis’ Hard Lemonade, Jed’s Hard Lemonade, Tequiza, Sublime, and Hooper’s Hooch, come in hip, bright, and colorful youth-oriented packaging. The labels resemble non-alcoholic lemonade, fruit punches and soft drinks — all popular with teens — though labels do disclose alcohol content. More than 80% of teens say “alcopops” are easy to get if they want them.

At a Washington press conference, George A. Hacker, CSPI’s director for alcohol policies said, “Booze merchants formulate the products and the design of their labeling and packaging specifically to appeal to people who don’t like the taste of alcohol, which includes teenagers. ‘Alcopops’ are gateway drugs that ease young people into drinking and pave the way to more traditional alcoholic beverages.” Noting government’s failure to halt the marketing of “alcopops” by approving their labels, he called for Federal action to protect American children. CSPI released letters it had delivered to Robert Pitofsky, Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Bradley Buckles, Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF), that called for a crackdown on unfair and misleading marketing practices.

Also speaking at the press conference were U.S. Representative Eliot L. Engel (D-NY); General Arthur T. Dean (U.S. Army, retired), Chairman and CEO of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA); Sis Wenger, executive director of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA); and Jeannette Noltenius, PhD, for Richard Yoast, PhD, director of the National Program Office for “Reducing Underage Drinking through Coalitions ” at the American Medical Association.

By a three to one margin, teens report more familiarity than adults with “alcopops” and 17- and 18-year-olds are more than twice as likely as adults to have tried them. Most teenagers and adults surveyed believe that the new drinks are marketed primarily to people under the legal alcohol purchase age of 21, and nine in 10 teens and 67% of adults think that companies make “alcopops” taste like lemonade to lure young people into trying them.

According to the poll:

  • 90% of teens agree that drinking the newer, sweeter drinks can make it more likely that teenagers will try other alcoholic beverages;
  • 41% of teens 14 to 18 have tried an “alcopop”;
  • twice as many 14- to 16-year-olds prefer them over beer or mixed drinks;
  • more than half of all teens point to attributes of the products — their sweet taste, the disguised taste of alcohol, and their easy-to-drink character — as major reasons teenagers choose “alcopops” over beer, wine, or cocktails.

“Companies that market ‘starter brews’ and ‘alcopops,’” said Hacker, “aren’t peddling adult drinks. Those ‘alcopop’ drinks can have serious implications for America’s youth and for alcohol-related problems throughout society.” According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, young people who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times as likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who wait until age 21 to start.

More than 10 million Americans between the ages of 12 and 20 currently drink alcohol. Alcohol kills many more teenagers than all illicit drugs combined. It is a major factor in the four leading causes of death among teens — motor vehicle crashes, unintentional injuries, homicides, and suicides. According to estimates developed for the U.S. Department of Justice, underage drinking cost the nation some $53 billion in 1996.

Citing the findings of the national polls and two focus groups of teenagers conducted in Westchester County, New York, and Newton, Massachusetts, CSPI delivered letters to the Federal Trade Commission asking it to investigate the marketing of “alcopops” to teens and order labeling changes and reforms at the retail level.

The BATF approves every alcoholic-beverage label. CSPI asked the BATF immediately to: revoke approved labels for several “alcopop” drinks; require revisions in the design of “alcopop” labeling and packaging; and require “alcopop” producers to disclose their marketing plans and submit “alcoholism and underage-drinking impact assessments” to the agency prior to label approval.

The CSPI poll, “What Teens are Saying about “Alcopops,” was conducted during March 2001 by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, Inc. It included telephone interviews with 600 teenagers 14 to 18 years old and 500 adults 21 and over.