May 9, 2001 -- Alcopop has got to stop. So warns a consumer group that today unveiled new poll data suggesting teens are more likely than adults to drink sweet, fruit-flavored alcoholic beverages.
The group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, labelled the beverages "starter suds" and says their bright, hip packaging intentionally resembles that of nonalcoholic lemonades, fruit punches and soft drinks popular with teens.
A poll commissioned by CPSI found 64 percent of teens had heard or read about the drinks compared to just 21 percent of adults. And nearly twice as many teens as adults had tried them.
Products like Mike's Hard Lemonade, Doc Otis' Hard Lemonade, Sublime, Tequiza and Hooper's Hooch may disclose alcoholic content on their labels. But the beverages disguise the taste of alcohol to make them easier to drink, argued George Hacker, the CSPI's director for alcohol policies.
Hacker asserted they are intended as bridges to other forms of alcohol. "Companies that market 'starter brews' and 'alcopops' aren't peddling adult drinks."
Added the activist: "There's a strong motive among producers to get kids when they're young so they'll become steady customers.Even if the industry believes they're targeting entry level drinkers who are 21 years old, the real entry level these days is 13."
The center urged the government to investigate the marketing of the popular products.
A spokeswoman for Anheuser-Busch, which makes Doc Otis' Hard Lemonade and Tequiza, said the company agrees with the group's goal of combating underage drinking but disagrees with its tactics.
The spokeswoman, Francine Katz, also characterized the center as an "activist group with an anti-alcohol agenda. … They didn't like the ads and products we had 10 years ago, they don't like the ads and products we have today; and I venture to guess they won't like our ads or products 10 years from now."
Katz suggested it was more effective to ensure the company's products were consumed responsibly and by adults, as the St. Louis-based brewer has with education programs that it offers to parents, retailers and law enforcers to help them undermine underage drinking.
"There are ways to control this that do not limit product choices for adults," she said.
Still, the consumer group's campaign could pose a public relations challenge to the makers of fruity alcohol drinks.
And manufacture of the drinks is a growing business. Beverage Retailer magazine says spiked lemonades are part of a new craze in malt-based beverages that are taking on the kind of popularity and sales that wine coolers had in the 1980s.
The beverages generally sell for $5.50 to $7 for a six-pack, the magazine said, and sales rose fourfold last year to 4.1 million cases, generating revenues of about $90 million.
Is There a Teen Drinking Problem?
When assessing the scope of the underage drinking problem, consumer groups see the mug half empty while the alcohol industry says it's half full.
The beverage companies consistently deny any attempts to create a teen drinking market. And Katz of Anheuser-Busch points to Department of Health & Human Services data showing that alcohol use among 12- to 17-year olds declined in the 1990s. She added: "It's important to report that underage drinking is declining."
But the center cites data compiled in the same survey suggesting that more than 10 million drinkers in the United States are between the ages of 12-20. Of these young drinkers, 6.8 million are binge drinkers and 2.1 million are heavy drinkers.
The consumers group wants the government to reduce the appeal of the drinks to underage consumers by requiring that "alcopops" be separated from nonalcoholic beverages in the coolers and on the shelves of retail outlets.
Ads Under Scrutiny
Advertising's role in encouraging minors to drink alcohol is difficult to gauge and a matter of heated dispute.
The center was among several health, consumer and religious groups that asked President Bush to oppose television commercials for alcoholic beverages, particularly ads running during the Super Bowl that the groups said reach more than 30 million minors.
At a press conference today, Hacker criticized the government for what he characterized as a failure to halt the marketing of "alcopops" by approving their labels. The organization delivered letters to the Federal Trade Commission and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, or ATF, calling for a crackdown on "unfair and misleading marketing practices."
ATF spokesman Jim Crandall today said alcohol marketing "is full of gray areas" but is an issue the agency takes seriously. "It's a balancing act between those who think the First Amendment gives them the right to say anything they like and those like Mr. Hacker who want something a little tougher," Crandall said.
ABCNEWS Radio contributed to this report.