Beverage companies that sell alcoholic energy drinks were harshly criticized Tuesday by more than two dozen state attorneys general who want federal officials to examine the ingredients and marketing of the drinks they say are aimed at underage customers.
In a letter to John Manfreda, the administrator of the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the attorneys general of 28 states and Washington, D.C., and Guam say aggressive — and possibly fraudulent — marketing of energy drinks mixing alcohol and caffeine targets teenagers and young adults who buy nonalcoholic energy drinks.
"Nonalcoholic energy drinks are very popular with today's youth," Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers said. "Beverage companies are unconscionably appealing to young drinkers with claims about the stimulating properties of alcoholic energy drinks."
The attorneys general singled out Miller Brewing Co. for Sparks and Sparks Plus, Anheuser-Busch for Bud Extra and Charge Beverages of Portland for its Liquid Charge and Liquid Core drinks.
Anheuser-Busch vice president Francine Katz said the attorneys general should focus on restricting youth access to alcohol, particularly hard liquor products that can have 10 times the alcohol by volume as malt beverages. The federal government already approved the Bud Extra labeling, she said.
"This product is simply a malt beverage that contains caffeine, and is clearly marked as containing alcohol," Katz said. "In fact, Bud Extra has less caffeine than a 12-ounce Starbucks coffee."
The attorneys general are not so sure about the drinks' ingredients. They requested a federal investigation into the makeup of alcoholic energy drinks and other flavored malt beverages to determine whether, based on the percentage of distilled spirits contained in the drinks, they are properly classified as malt beverages under federal law. The malt beverage classification, in many states, enables cheaper and broader sale of these drinks, making them more readily available to young people than distilled spirits.
Julian Green, spokesman for Miller Brewing Co., said Sparks was created only for customers who are of legal drinking age.
"There is no nonalcoholic version of Sparks. We work closely with the Trade and Tax Bureau to ensure that all of our products meet federal regulatory requirements," he said.
Calls were placed to Charge Beverages in Portland, Ore.
The attorneys general said several advertisements make misleading health-related claims such as increasing stamina and energy. They said the companies' marketing warrants investigation and possible enforcement action by TTB.
"Combining alcohol with caffeine hardly seems healthy and that false claim is what we seek to halt," Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said.
Liquid Charge's Web site displays a video of a nuclear power plant's cooling tower collapsing and being replaced by a can of Liquid Charge. The ad calls the drink a "new power source for the 21st century."
A report by the San Rafael, Calif.-based Marin Institute, which describes itself as an alcohol industry watchdog group, said 500 new energy drink products were introduced worldwide last year. Michele Simon, research and policy director of the group, said about 20 brands are alcoholic drinks and have come on the market in the last 10 years.
In addition to Oregon and Connecticut, states involved in the action are Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.
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