CSPI to Sue Anheuser-Busch, Miller over Alcoholic Energy Drinks
Group Questions Safety of Stimulants in “Alcospeed”
February 28, 2008
WASHINGTON—Lawyers for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest today served Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Company with notices of CSPI’s intent to sue the companies over a new generation of caffeinated alcoholic drinks. Drinks such as Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Extra and Tilt, and Miller’s Sparks, have more alcohol than beer and contain stimulant additives that are not officially approved for use in alcoholic drinks, including caffeine, taurine, ginseng, or guarana.
No studies are available to support the safety of consuming those stimulants and alcohol together—but new research does indicate that the young consumers of what CSPI calls “alcospeed” are more likely to binge drink, become injured, ride with an intoxicated driver, or be taken advantage of sexually than drinkers of conventional alcoholic drinks. And the viral marketing campaigns behind the drinks are clearly designed to appeal to young, and often underage, drinkers, according to CSPI.
CSPI will seek a permanent injunction prohibiting the companies from combining stimulants with alcohol and disgorgement of the companies’ profits from Bud Extra, Tilt, and Sparks into a cy pres charitable fund.
“This is just the latest and one of the more sinister attempts by alcohol producers to prey on a new generation of future problem drinkers,” said George A. Hacker, director of CSPI’s alcohol policies project. “This is an industry that wants its consumers young and it wants them hooked. And alcospeed contains two addictive ingredients in one sunny container, and several other stimulants that are not even approved for use.”
The companies are also being investigated by 16 state attorneys general, who recently subpoenaed internal company documents pertaining to the products’ sales and marketing. Last August, a task force of 30 state attorneys general warned the companies that “adding caffeine and other stimulants to alcohol may increase the risk to young consumers because those additives tend to reduce the perception of intoxication and make greater quantities of alcohol palatable.”
A previous probe, along with criticism from CSPI and other health groups, prompted Anheuser-Busch to remove a similar product, Spykes, from the marketplace. Spykes came packaged in fingernail-polish sized bottles with alcohol concentration of 12 percent and with the stimulants caffeine, ginseng, and guarana.
“Short of decorating these cans with Hannah Montana or Spiderman, it’s hard to see how you could do a better job of marketing alcospeed to young people than Anheuser-Busch and Miller are doing,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. “The cans are virtually indistinguishable from several non-alcoholic energy drinks that are heavily marketed to young people. They have a sugary taste, and colors that make it look more like Mountain Dew or Orange Crush than regular beer. It’s a recipe for disaster and the companies should be held accountable.”
Miller’s Sparks comes in varieties with either 6 percent or 7 percent alcohol by volume; Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Extra has 6 percent alcohol and its Tilt comes in 6.6 percent and 8 percent varieties.
The companies marketing materials are clearly designed to encourage people to drink more than they otherwise would. Anheuser-Busch’s web site describes the niche as those “who want a drink to transition from day into evening,” and magazine ads for Bud Extra have urged consumers to “go home with more than a burrito tonight,” “you can go home early when you’re married,” and simply, “go longer.”
Though both the marketing and the product’s stimulants are designed to give drinkers the impression that they can consume more alcohol without feeling as intoxicated, research shows that the stimulants in alcospeed drinks do nothing to reduce the negative effects of the alcohol on motor coordination and visual reaction times.
“The risk of serious and potentially deadly consequences is significantly higher for students who mix energy drinks and alcohol,” said Dr. Mary Claire O'Brien, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine and Public Health Sciences at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. “Energy drinks mask the symptoms of drunkenness—but not the drunkenness itself. Students may feel that they are ‘ok to drive’ when physically they are actually intoxicated. We know that annually 2.8 million college student drive drunk each year, and that injury is the number one killer in that age group. Energy drinks and alcohol don't mix.”
A 2007 survey of 4,271 college students conducted by Dr. O’Brien and her Wake Forest colleagues found that consumption of alcohol mixed with energy drinks was associated with increased heavy episodic drinking, and a significantly higher prevalence of alcohol-related consequences. That research included energy drink cocktails, such as hard liquor mixed with nonalcoholic drinks like Red Bull, as well as drinks like Tilt, Sparks, and Bud Extra.
CSPI’s letters to Anheuser-Busch and Miller invite the companies to negotiate a settlement without resorting to litigation—an offer that expires in 30 days. CSPI has previously negotiated settlements or voluntary changes in marketing practices by Kellogg, Frito-Lay, Pinnacle Foods, Quaker Oats, and others. This is the first alcohol-related initiative of CSPI’s litigation unit.