With edgy names, vivid packaging and occasionally stratospheric levels of caffeine, energy drinks are the beverage of choice for many teens who want to get more out of their drinks than a simple thirst quencher.
But a new offering is raising the eyebrows of some parents and researchers.
At first glance, the beverage -- called Spykes -- offers the same fruity flavors, caffeine boost and herbal elixir qualities of many energy drinks currently on the market.
The difference is that Spykes, as the label indicates, is an alcoholic beverage.
And critics say the compact packaging, low price and flashy online advertising are designed to make it appealing to underage consumers.
"I think it's one more outrageous example of the predatory marketing practices of the alcohol industry," says Susan Foster, vice president and director of policy research at Columbia University's National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse.
"This is a huge public health problem, and it is very hard to regulate."
Spykes, which is made by Anheuser-Busch, has roughly the same alcohol content as wine and comes in such flavors as Spicy Mango and Hot Melons.
But it is the energy-drink appeal and the marketing that is nearly exclusively present on the Internet that has some researchers worried.
"This is an issue of corporate responsibility," says James Mosher, an attorney with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation who researches the effects of alcohol marketing campaigns on young audiences.
"Energy drinks are so popular with teens. Clearly they've got to know that the market they are tying in with is an underage market."
Mosher adds that more such drinks will likely enter the market soon, as other major breweries add their own products to the mix.
"We've got a whole flurry of new products hitting the market like Spykes," he says. "But what's disturbing is that now the big brewers are moving in. Once they put their muscle behind it, then you know if will be big."
But does a threat truly exist? In a printed statement, John Kaestner, vice president of consumer affairs for Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc. in St. Louis, Mo., calls the reaction to Spykes "misguided and unfounded."
He also writes in the statement that Spykes are clearly labeled as containing alcohol.
"The way to prevent underage drinking is not by limiting product choices for adults," the statement reads. "Rather, the solution is to prevent youth access to alcohol by training retailers to properly check IDs, supporting law enforcement officials in enforcing underage-drinking laws, and encouraging parents to set rules and consequences for their sons and daughters."
Yet, some studies suggest that youth appeal translates into big sales for alcoholic beverage companies. According to research led by Foster, underage drinking contributes an estimated $23 billion yearly to the alcohol industry, more than 17 percent of the total consumer expenditures for alcohol. The findings were published in the May 2006 issue of the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
And critics say the latest products appeal to an underage market in a way that is difficult to ignore. The sweet flavor of the product helps young drinkers overcome their aversions to the taste of alcohol, they say. Additionally, Mosher says the small, easily concealed bottles make it easy for kids and teens to get away with drinking the products surreptitiously.