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Trouble Brewing Over 'Starter Suds'

Survey finds malt-based liquors top teen choice; experts want clearer packaging

FRIDAY, May 11 (HealthScout) -- Putting bright labels on sweet drinks that contain alcohol and displaying the bottles next to soft drinks in the supermarket are subtle -- or not-so-subtle -- ways of marketing these "alcopops" to teen-agers, says a new survey.

"Alcopop" drinks --which contain about 5 percent alcohol and include brands like Mike's Hard Lemonade or Tequiza Sublime -- use marketing techniques specifically designed to attract teen-agers, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which is urging that the government crack down on these "unfair and misleading marketing practices."

CSPI is concerned, it says, because young people who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times as likely to become dependent on alcohol than those who wait until the legal age of 21.

And the American Medical Association (AMA) has added its voice also.

"Our position is that 'alcopops' are another aggressive marketing tactic by the alcohol beverage industry to lure young children into consuming alcohol," says Lisa Erk, communications director in the AMA's Office of Alcohol and other Drug Abuse in Chicago, Ill. "The real issue here is the packaging. It so closely resembles other soft drinks like ice tea and lemonades that it's very easy for adults and kids alike to confuse the two."

The AMA and CSPI joined with the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America in presenting the survey's findings this week.

To understand how teens felt about the malt-based drinks, CSPI conducted a national poll, and took results from two focus groups in Westchester County, N.Y., and Newton, Mass. Among their findings:

  • 80 percent of teen-agers say 'alcopops' are easy to get if they want them
  • 41 percent of teens between the ages of 14 and 18 have tried the sweet drinks
  • Twice as many 14- to 16-year-olds prefer 'alcopops' to beer or mixed drinks
  • More than half of all the teens say the sweet taste of the drinks and their easy-to-drink character are the major reasons they choose them over hard liquor.

The fruit-flavored brews are rivaling the 1980s popularity of wine coolers, according to Beverage Retailer magazine. The malts, available in lemon, apple, berry and orange flavors, showed sales of about $90 million, or 4.1 million cases, last year.

But the Beer Institute, the national trade association for the brewing industry, says the packaging and labeling of "alcopops" is already under government review.

"Our members work with the Federal Trade Commission on advertising issues and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on labeling issues," says Jeff Becker, the institute's president. "Both agencies have broad authority to prevent advertising and marketing to teens and adults under 21."

"Underage drinking is a society and family issue -- not an advertising issue," Becker continues. "Exposure to or awareness of beer advertising by those under the legal driving age has nothing to do with what can help them make decisions about not drinking alcohol beverages. Alcohol abuse and underage drinking unfortunately pre-date the advent of beer advertising, and preventing these problems is not as simple as turning off the television set or covering children's eyes."

While the advertising may not be deliberate, it's certainly affecting teen-agers, Erk contends. "Regardless of whether it is deliberate or not, it's a problem, and we think the Federal government needs to step in and create more effective guidelines for such product packaging."

"What we do know is that there are more than 11 million underage drinkers in this country," Erk adds. "And we also know that the age when children start consuming alcohol continues to drop. The first taste of alcohol is around 11 for boys and 12 for girls."

"What people don't understand is that using alcohol can lead to long-term changes in brain function, and that's particularly dangerous to kids, who are still growing and developing," she adds.

Repeated phone calls to Vancouver-based Mark Anthony Brands, Ltd., which markets Mike's Hard Lemonade, were not returned.

What To Do

To learn more about how to discourage young people from drinking, visit Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD online.

Or these HealthScout stories discuss the latest on alcohol.

SOURCES: Interviews with Lisa Erk, communications director, Office of Alcohol and other Drug Abuse, American Medical Association, Chicago, Ill.; Jeff Becker, president, Beer Institute, Washington, D.C.; May 9, 2001 What Teens are Saying about "Alcopops"
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