Sweet Drinks That Lure Kids Pack a Surprise - Alcohol


When Beverly Adey, a housewife living near London, spotted fruit-flavored drinks with a Power Rangers label at her local supermarket, she thought members of her young family would enjoy them. So she took some home.

Minutes after her children opened the containers and drank from them, they began suffering from the effects of alcohol. Tests carried out by local officials revealed that the "Power Ranger Freeze Drinks," packaged apparently with teens in mind, contained 4.5 percent alcohol.

The supermarket manager swiftly removed the drinks from his shelves, and Magna Confectioners, who made them, said they had been "accidentally contaminated."

That is not the case, however, with an expanding range of fruit-flavored alcoholic drinks now entering markets around the world. Frank Dobson, Britain's health secretary, has condemned the marketing of these "alcopops" as "a dirty trade."

Alcopops, often packaged in ways that give them a powerful appeal to youngsters, are triggering action by authorities in Europe, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

Last month, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs was surprised to find a Harlem deli selling a frozen malt-liquor drink that looked like a typical Italian ice. It was laced with alcohol.

The city soon discovered that many delis and bodegas (Latin groceries) had St. Ides Special Brew Freeze and Squeeze stocked next to the Italian ices and Hagen-Dazs ice cream. City officials lost no time denouncing the product as appealing to minors, since it was sweet and presented in a form similar to many nonalcoholic beverages.

"It is insidiously attractive to minors," says New York City Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jos Maldonado. "It's immoral that St. Ides has not monitored the distribution of this product more responsibly."

Stung by the criticism, St. Ides says it is going to stop production of the frozen malt-liquor product.

In May, British officials, responding to mounting alarm expressed by parents' groups and anti-alcohol organizations, appointed a special team to look into the problem here. It found that alcopops with names such as Hooch (4.7 percent alcohol), Thickhead (4.9 percent), and Thunderbird (13.1 percent) were being sold in ever-increasing quantities.

In a statement last month, the team said there was "ample evidence of illegal sales, unsupervised drinking, and alcohol abuse" among youths under 18. Alcopops were "a particular danger because their strength is masked by fruit and other flavors."

The British government has warned the nation's beverage manufacturers to adhere to a self-policing code devised by Portman Group, an organization that represents the British beverage industry, or face a possible ban on alcopops. The Portman code calls on distributors to make sure alcopops are not sold to youngsters under 18, Britain's minimum drinking age. It also puts pressure on manufacturers and distributors to avoid labeling the drinks in ways that make them attractive to teenagers.

Home Secretary Jack Straw has given manufacturers one year to put their house in order or face new regulation.

Alcopops appear to have originated in Adelaide, Australia, in 1993. Duncan MacGillivray, a brewer, was looking for a way to use an oversupply of lemons.

He mixed beer and lemonade and began selling the drink under the name Two Dogs. It caught on, and by summer 1995 the product had crossed the world and was on sale in Britain.

A year later, Two Dogs arrived in San Diego for test marketing in the US. Earlier this year, British-made Hooch also went on sale in American stores.

Experience in Britain pinpoints the enthusiasm of alcoholic-drinks manufacturers for alcopops - and their reluctance to admit that they are aimed largely at teenagers.

In less than two years, British sales have rocketed to $575 million. There are about 100 different brands of alcopops, accounting for 10 percent of the alcoholic-beverage market, according to industry figures.

In a British survey, 7 out of 10 police officers who work combating teen drinking said alcopops are the favorite alcoholic drink of under 18-year-olds.

Earlier this year, a study of 2,500 young people by Britain's Health Education Authority found that more than 1 in 5 girls aged 13 to 16 who drink alcohol at least once a month said that alcopops were their favorite drink. A survey in June by a school health-education unit in Exeter, England, found that half of 12- and 13-year-olds regularly drank alcohol, and one-quarter of that age group "drink to get drunk."

The effects of teen drinking can be devastating. In May, a 14-year-old boy in Bolton, in northern England, was accused of becoming drunk on alcoholic lemonade and cider and burning down a school, causing $1.2 million in damage. Judge Peter Lakin called the beverage industry "grossly irresponsible."

Officially, British makers of alcoholic drinks reject claims that they are targeting teenagers with alcopops. Last year, the Spilt Drinks Co. denied that cartoon characters on the label of its alcopop Jammin' were intended to attract teenagers. John Philpott, the managing director, told officials that Jammin' was "aimed at bored housewives."

The Portman Group ordered Spilt Drinks to change the label.

MORE information on the allegedly ruthless marketing approach of alcopop manufacturers emerged in May when the London Sunday Times reported that executives of drinks companies, meeting with reporters who posed as marketing managers, admitted that underage drinkers were attracted to alcopops.

The newspaper quoted one drinks company executive as saying, "Alcopops ease the transition between drinking orange squash and drinking alcohol." He said drinkers of alcopops started at under age 13. Another claimed that it was better for teenagers to drink alcopops than take drugs.

The arrival in the US of imported alcopops has stimulated domestic brewers to come up with their own versions.

A division of Heublein, TGIFriday, has developed sweet drinks with names such as Butter Ball, Cosmic Kaze, and Oatmeal Cookie.

As in Britain, labeling in the US seems to be pitched at youngsters, with cartoon characters used extensively. Cosmic Kaze (20 percent alcohol) features a meteorite with sun glasses. Butter Ball (15 percent) has a graphic that looks like an overweight Elvis Presley singing.

Heublein, based in Hartford, Conn., denies it is targeting underage drinkers. "That would be corporate suicide," says Steve Goldsmith, group director of brand publicity and marketing at IDV North America, which makes the drinks.

Mr. Goldstein says the company, a subsidiary of British-based Grand Metropolitan Plc, has redesigned its packaging to make it "more formal-looking."

St. Ides Freeze and Squeeze suddenly has appeared in five US cities. Although the packaging announced it was an alcoholic product, it was placed in the freezer section with nonalcoholic products. It ended up mainly in inner-city areas, such as Oakland, Calif.

The company defended the product by noting it was identified as alcoholic four times on each package. Calls to St. Ides Brewing Co. in San Francisco were not returned. Lacy Logan, a spokeswoman for the Detroit-based Strohs Brewing Co., which issued a press release promoting Freeze and Squeeze, also did not return repeated phone calls.

It is not the first time St. Ides has been accused of selling alcoholic products that appeal to teenagers. Paul Scott, an African-American community activist in Durham, N.C., and head of a group called IMANI (Inspiring Men to Act Against Negative Influence), says the company markets a malt-alcohol product that employs rap artists such as Snoopy Dog Dog, King T, and E 40.

"How many people over 21 listen to rap music?" Mr. Scott asks. "Eight-to-10-year-olds listen to it."

British Health Secretary Dobson says governments in Europe and beyond are "keeping a close eye on how the UK handles this problem."

France consumes the most alcohol per capita in Western Europe. Alcopops have been on limited sale in France for several months. In April, in a possible sign of future global trends, the French conglomerate Pernod Ricard purchased a controlling interest in the Australian company that invented Two Dogs.

Jean-Louis Lepeltier, chief executive of Orlando Wyndham, Pernod's Australian subsidiary, said his company would "pursue growth" in the US and that it considered opportunities in Asia "exciting."

Governments in Australia and New Zealand, trying to head off growing alcohol abuse by children, asked beveragemakers and distributors to establish self-policing codes of conduct.

This summer more than 200 members of the European Parliament signed a declaration calling for stricter guidelines "for the promotion, marketing, and retailing of alcopops and designer drinks."

Governments in Germany, Ireland, and the Scandinavian countries are also waking up to the problem. In June, Finland made it illegal for anyone under 18 to possess or consume alcopops.

In Britain, some supermarket chains, seeing the determination of the government to control alcopops, have already voluntarily removed them from shelves.

But brewing companies show no sign of cutting back on alcopop production.

In June, Bass, the makers of Hooch, launched Hoola, a tropical-fruit variant. Other new products reaching the market in recent months include Spiked Ice, a frozen drink with 5.5 percent vodka, and Frapp, a frozen liquor sold in cartons.

Zenith International, a market-research company, forecasts that alcopop sales in Britain will reach 1.3 billion ($2.1 billion) by 2000, if current consumption trends continue.

* Staff writer Ron Scherer in New York contributed to this report.

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