New scrutiny aimed at alcoholic energy drinks

Doug Finke

When Chris Sandilands attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, he and his friends had a drink of choice.

It was Sparks, one of a relatively new breed of beverages that combines alcohol and caffeine, along with other stimulants, in one brew. Many such drinks contain at least 6 percent alcohol by volume, more than is in most beer.

"They taste good, and they do just what they say, they give you energy," Sandilands said of the beverages. "It had the same effect of drinking beer, but you wouldn't get sleepy. You'd be full of energy and stay up all night."

Often referred to as alcoholic energy drinks, the beverates are coming under increased scrutiny by state officials and others who believe manufacturers are using the appeal of energy drinks among teens and young adults to market the alcoholic products.

Last year, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan was one of 30 attorneys general in the country who signed a letter asking federal officials to step up efforts at preventing manufacturers from making "misleading health-related statements" about the products.

"Attorney General Madigan is against these alcohol energy drinks altogether," said Madigan spokesman Scott Mulford. "They lure young people who are already attracted to popular energy drinks by taking advantage of that popularity and attraction and dumping alcohol in them."

Madigan thinks alcoholic energy drinks should be banned altogether, Mulford said.

Many of the drinks are fruit-flavored and tend to be sweet. That masks the taste of the alcohol and makes them more appealing to younger drinkers.

"Bud Extra is almost impossible to tell there is alcohol in it," said Steve Gardner, director of litigation for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It's the kind of drink underage drinkers like."

The center is researching whether marketing for alcoholic energy drinks violates state consumer protection laws against deceptive and unfair practices.

Anheuser-Busch, maker of Bud Extra and Tilt, issued a written statement saying the company conducts community programs and advertising campaigns to combat underage drinking and works with retailers to help them better identify minors and prevent alcohol sales to them.

“The way to prevent underage drinking is not by restricting marketing or limiting product choices for adults, but rather preventing youth access to alcohol,” Carol Clark, Anheuser Busch’s vice-president of corporate social responsibility, said in the statement.

The Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association also has its eyes set on the beverages.

"The biggest problem I have is that they are extremely deceptive in packaging and marketing," said Sara Moscato Howe, chief executive officer of the association. "They are packaged almost exactly like their non-alcoholic counterparts."

Worse, she said, labels that say the product contains alcohol are often tiny and difficult to read. She cited Sparks as an example of a beverage with a difficult-to-read alcohol label.

Howe said she has met parents who weren't aware that alcoholic energy drinks exist. The danger, she said, is that that minors could get hold of the product, either because a parent wasn't aware it contained alcohol or because a store clerk might mistake an alcoholic version for a non-alcoholic one.

The association is working on legislation they hope to introduce in the General Assembly this year that will require more alcoholic energy drinks to carry more prominent labeling that they do contain alcohol.

Miller Brewing Company, maker of Sparks, did not respond to a call seeking comment.

Just how prevalent the beverages are among underage drinkers is hard to determine. The Springfield Police Department and the Springfield School District both said they have no reports that local minors have been found using alcoholic energy drinks.

Health care professionals have concerns about the drinks even in the hands of adults.

“Caffeine does not alter your level of (intoxication),” said Ron Kanwischer, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. “You miss the internal cues to stop drinking. They (users of the beverages) would overestimate their abilities. They will say they are quite alert. The first thing that goes with intoxication is judgment, anyway.”

“That’s the basic allure. I can drink more than I used to,” he said.

The drinks are especially popular among college students. That’s where Sandilands said he first tried the drinks, which were readily available in stores.

“Once I got out of college, it just disappeared,” Sandilands said. “I stick to beer, nowadays.”

Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527. 


-- Alcoholic energy drink made by Anheuser Busch.

-- Ingredients according to label: "Premium malt beverage with caffeine, ginseng and guarana extracts, natural flavors and artificial color." 6.6 percent alcohol by volume.

-- Review from the Liquor Snob web site ( “Where we were expecting something light and crisp along the lines of Red Bull and vodka ... Tilt is sickly sweet and syrupy, with an oddly disturbing beer taste on the back end. In fact, it tasted like someone left an open can of Budweiser out in the sun for a few days, then stirred in a packet of Kool-Aid.”