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Suds Surfing That Slippery Slope

Let me start out by saying that I am not a big fan of Alcopops. I understand their appeal and the demographic that generally prefers them. I am of the opinion that they probably make it harder for craft brewers to capture the just-over-21 market because of the average younger persons’ preference for sweet flavors. But as malt-based beverages, they are in the family of beer, albeit often considered a distant cousin at best. I’ve been guilty myself of wanting to throw them under the bus sometimes, simply because they’re such a target for neo-prohibitionists. Because of their supposed popularity among younger drinkers, they’ve been an equally popular target for the anti-alcohol factions of society.

But let’s re-think this. It’s clearly not working to simply let malternatives take the fall. In California, recent legislation to tax alcopops as spirits — a quite ridiculously tortured and incorrect way of defining them that was done simply because neo-prohibitionists got to have their way — also may quite possibly do away with (or make prohibitively expensive) barrel aged beer, too. So maybe we should think about this in the same way we do freedom of speech. We may not like what someone has to say, but we understand that we must protect their right to say it or one day we, too, may be unable to express our opinion. That may be what’s happening with malt-based beverages. Even though many of us in the craft beer world may not like them, perhaps we should defend them. Wait, here me out. The truth is, once the neo-prohibitionists have put that segment of the alcohol business out of business, they won’t be satisfied and simply go home and live their lives. They’ll just move on to the next target.

It reminds of that famous quotation/poem by German Pastor Martin Niemöller:

“In Germany, they came first for the Communists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . .
And by that time there was no one left to speak up.”

It wasn’t my intention to necessarily compare neo-prohibitionists to the Nazis, but in terms of tactics and propaganda, it’s not really a bad analogy. So I’m starting to think we should speak up for our malternative cousins. Whatever they say and do to go after them, eventually they’ll say and do to craft beer.

What brought all of this up was the news today that the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has filed suit against MillerCoors arguing that Sparks, their alcoholic energy drink, “encourages binge drinking, underage drinking, drunken driving and sexual assaults.” At least that’s how most reports are characterizing the CSPI’s lawsuit, which you can read at the Milwaukee Business Journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and MarketWatch.

From the Milwaukee newspaper:

Drinkers of caffeinated alcoholic drinks are more likely to binge drink, ride with an intoxicated driver, become injured or be taken advantage of sexually than drinkers of non-caffeinated alcoholic drinks, according to a 2007 study conducted at Wake Forest University and cited by the nonprofit.

Sparks contain 6 percent to 7 percent alcohol by volume, as opposed to regular beer, which typically has 4 percent or 5 percent alcohol.

Sparks’ appeal to young people is enhanced by its “sweet citrusy taste, redolent of SweeTarts candy, and the bright color of orange soda,” the nonprofit said in a statement.

“MillerCoors is trying to hook teens and ‘tweens on a dangerous drink,” said the nonprofit’s litigation director Steve Gardner, in a statement. “This company’s behavior is reckless, predatory and in the final analysis, likely to disgust a judge or a jury.”

Unless there are other versions, it’s seems pretty clear it’s 6% abv, not up to 7%. And their suggestion that MillerCoors is trying to “hook teens” is just inflammatory rhetoric. Like every company that sells alcohol, they understand just how important it is that they that don’t sell to minors. The penalties are just too severe, thanks to the neo-prohibitionist agenda and their scare tactics.

That fact that young people who are under 21 might also like sweet drinks is hardly a reason to force them to not offer them for sale to legal adults. Soda is sickeningly sweet — not to mention arguably worse for a person’s health than beer — and we don’t sue them to stop their sale because young people might be harmed by them. There are thousands of such products made for adults but not ideal or illegal for kids that we don’t think should be discontinued just because of their appeal to kids. It’s up to parents to decide what’s best for their own children and up to retail companies and law enforcement to restrict those products that are illegal for minors from being purchased by them. The very idea that something legal for adults should be wiped off the face of the earth because kids might like it too is one that continues to baffle me. Follow that logic to its obvious conclusion, and we’ll create a world suitable only for children. Given that childhood is all about learning to grow up and be an adult, it just makes no sense. When you consider that roughly 29% of the American population is under 21, that means neo-prohibitionists and the CSPI want to ignore 71% of the rest of society, in other words the vast majority.

Back in June, the CSPI notified Miller and Anheuser-Busch of their intent to file suit against them. Uncharacteristically, the normally litigious A-B decided to cave in to their demands and “agreed to take caffeine and other unapproved additives out of its two alcoholic energy drinks, Bud Extra and Tilt.” They also paid $200,000 to eleven states “to reimburse them for the cost of the investigation.” I can only presume they did so primarily to avoid negative publicity, and not due to any belief that they had done anything untoward.

In the St. Louis take on this story, they claim that the CSPI “said the drink contains ‘unapproved’ additives, including caffeine and guarana,” though it’s unclear who needs to approve them. They continue:

CSPI’s lawsuit argues that it is illegal to use caffeine, guarana, ginseng, and taurine in alcoholic beverages. The group argues that the Food and Drug Administration has given only very narrow approval for caffeine and guarana—with no allowance for alcoholic drinks—and no approval for ginseng in any food or beverage. Taurine is only approved for use in chicken feed, not human food, according to the group.

But I’ve seen soda with guarana, taurine, ginseng and, obviously, caffeine. And brewers have been brewing beer with coffee for at least a decade or two, with no issue having been raised by the FDA as far as I know. And as mentioned in the MarketWatch report, “the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has approved all product formulations and labels for the Sparks line.” MillerCoors continues:

Further, “we have and we will continue to ensure that the labeling, marketing and product formulations of all our brands meet all applicable federal regulations and that our brands are marketed responsibly to legal drinking-age adults.”

But let’s forget about those reports and go directly to the source. According to the lawsuit itself, which was filed in the District of Columbia, the two causes of action alleged by the CSPI are one; that Miller Coors violated the “D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act: Deception D.C. Code § 28-3901, et seq.” and two; that they also violated “D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act: Breach of Implied Warranty of Merchantability D.C. Code §§ 28:2-312-318.” Even if successful on either of the two counts, that means MillerCoors would only be enjoined from selling Sparks in Washington D.C., at least for now. Undoubtedly this is a test case, with the fate of the fifty states hanging in the balance. The complaint is filled with a laundry list of “facts,” which are actually not facts, but arguments (some of which are pure propaganda), including listing their own success in earlier lawsuits. Two of the so-called “facts” they allege are that “[t]hese drinks appeal strongly to underage drinkers, such as college students, because they taste more like a soft drink than an alcoholic beverage” and also that “[t]here is a physiological effect — and marketing message — that consuming alcohol and caffeine together allows one to drink more alcohol without feeling as intoxicated as would otherwise be the case.” The CSPI characterizes these two as “the most serious.” That means their biggest problem with Sparks is that people who prefer sweet tastes like them and they don’t like the way they’re marketed. But, of course, there are plenty of other sweet alcoholic drinks available. A recent survey by another neo-prohibitionist group found that underage drinkers’ clear preference is not beer (which is where Sparks would fit), but hard liquor with something added to sweeten it. Red Bull and vodka has been a popular mixed drink for many years. And a preference for wine and beer was roughly the same, and far below sweetened spirits, both at around 16%. But as usual, wine and spirits get a free pass, while beer is demonized.

In this case, though, it seems it’s not just the alcohol, but that it’s sweet and alcohol. Apparently that’s just too much. Of course, we should ask where that preference for all things sweet came from. Our genetic collective sweet tooth has been exploited by almost every single food company out there. Troll the average grocery store and pick up things at random. What you’ll discover is that practically everything has sugar in it. Stuff you would never, ever think might have sugar as an ingredient, does. For example, Morton’s Salt has sugar in it, for chrissakes. Sometimes they don’t call it sugar, but instead use chemical names ending in -ose, like sucrose (table sugar), maltose (malt sugar), fructose (fruit sugar), lactose (milk sugar), glucose (a.k.a. dextrose, grape sugar), and many, many more. And since food labels list ingredients in order of their concentration, many food companies list sugar several times in their individual forms, having several chemical names for sugar on one label, to hide the actual amount of sugar in their products. And sugar is arguably far worse for people’s health than alcohol. But you see little kids down to toddlers mainlining the stuff in soda, which probably started with all the juice they push on babies which is likewise loaded with sugar. Soda has such a high concentration of sugar that after drinking one, your body actually craves more liquid to dilute all that sugar you just drank in a hopeless effort to quench your thirst. Is it any wonder that we crave sweet tastes?

But neo-prohibitionists continue to blame the alcohol companies for this condition that was not of their making. You might argue that they shouldn’t exploit it, but when everybody else — and I do mean just about everybody — is pandering to kids and adults alike why shouldn’t they? I may not like these drinks, but I can’t reasonably say they shouldn’t be “allowed” to sell them, as the CSPI thinks they can, just because kids might like their sweeter taste. Even if they were outlawed, there would still be sweet wine and cocktails for kids looking to get drunk and satisfy their sweet tooth. Can the CSPI honestly believe that if there was no more Sparks around, kids would give up their desire for alcohol? I mean that rhetorically, of course. I know they’re not that stupid, so that suggests a larger agenda. This lawsuit is part of the CSPI’s Litigation Project, which is certainly an ominous sounding name for a “project.” What’s especially troubling is I can’t disagree with everything they’ve done so far. But the CSPI press release also boasts that their “agreement with Anheuser-Busch was the first alcohol-related accomplishment for CSPI’s litigation project.” If that doesn’t suggest additional lawsuits, I don’t know what else would.

I suggest that we support and help, if possible, MillerCoors with this latest attack on alcohol. No matter what we may think of malternatives or beers with caffeine and other additives, if we don’t speak up now, who will be here to speak for us when the neo-prohibitionists come for craft beer? I, for one, don’t want to slide down that slippery slope to another prohibition.


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