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."
'Spyking' the Energy Drink Phenomenon
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.
"The bottles are easy to hide, and they don't look like alcoholic beverages," he says. "It is just perfect for the teenage market."
Web Site Hosts Roiling Debate
Upon visiting Spykes' promotional Web site at Spykeme.com, surfers are immediately faced with a page stating that they must be 21 years of age to look at its content.
For underage Web users who tell the truth about their age, entering their date of birth and clicking the link takes them to a page promoting Anheuser-Busch's theme parks.
However, for those who are of legal age -- or at least say they are -- the link leads to a vivid home page, complete with club music and descriptions of the Spykes' range of products.
This virtual creation perhaps represents the bulk of direct-to-consumer advertising that the company has put together in the marketing of Spykes. And this alone, critics say, is part of the problem.
"This is even more evidence of what their marketing push is," Mosher says. "We know that teens are heavy users of the Internet, and companies that want to market to teens use the Internet and other forms of viral marketing.
"The fact that they are not using more traditional advertising venues really raises the issue: If adults are their primary market, how come they are only using the tactics that are popular with teens? This does not pass the smell test."
Foster agrees. "Clearly there are many, many young people online -- proportionately more than older people. I don't think that's an accident."
But in many ways the flashy Web site designed to promote Spykes has also become yet another forum for the debate over the beverages' right to exist.
A user who goes by the handle "Mike C" writes on the drinks' discussion boards that the beverages are "a blatant and obvious attempt at aiming [sic] product appeal and advertising at teens."
On the other side of the argument is "e2eky1e," who has this to say:
"You people need to get real. Teens have been drinking and will continue drinking until the end of time. … I highly doubt that kids that weren't already drinking in the first place are thinking, 'Oh shoot, I better give up my sobriety because of a little pink bottle.'"
The Question of Regulation
Foster says she believes tighter regulations are needed to keep such offerings out of underage hands.
"There is a point at which public health needs to trump profit," she says. "The federal government needs to regulate this kind of marketing as it relates to young people."
However, such a move would no doubt be hindered by the fact that no specific research yet exists that implicates Spykes and products like it in encouraging underage drinking.
"We don't have the data yet, of course," Mosher says. "It always takes us a few years to get the scientific data to counter the PR push that they always do."
But even in the absence of concrete data, Mosher calls the Anheuser-Busch move to put these drinks on the market "highly irresponsible."
"The first level of responsibility rests with the companies themselves," he says. "Their responsibility is to keep stuff off of the market that is particularly attractive to young people.
"If the companies refuse to act responsibly, then we need legislation."