CSPI's director of alcohol pollicies
Several years after they appeared in Europe, alcopops have reached the United States. Their appearance coincided with the time of the year when teenagers attend prom and graduation parties – traditions familiar to anyone who has seen any of the countless "rite of passage" films produced over the years. Critics of the booze industry recognise an attempt to ensure that these young people, as they move from school to college, growing from adolescence to adulthood, are recruited to the ranks of regular drinkers.
In the United Kingdom and elsewhere, the drink industry was accused of aiming these sweet, fruit-flavoured drinks at the teenage market. It was a way, the argument went, of accustoming young people to the consumption of alcohol when they might otherwise find the taste of conventional drinks – beer, distilled spirits – unpleasant. The same reaction has met their launch in the United States. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), commissioned a poll to assess the public perception of alcopops. Unsurprisingly, the findings show that they appeal more to teenagers than to the adult market for which the producers claim they are intended and that these same young people are more likely to drink them.
Pulling no punches, George Hacker, CSPI's director of alcohol policies, told a press conference in Washington that "booze merchants formulate the products and the design of their labelling and packaging specifically to appeal to people who don't like the taste of alcohol, which includes teenagers. Alcopops are gateway drugs that ease young people into drinking and pave the way to more traditional beverages."
In the poll, by a margin of three to one, teenagers showed a greater familiarity with alcopops than adults and seventeen and eighteen year olds were more than twice as likely to have drunk them. The majority of both adults and teenagers polled believed that alcopops were aimed at people below the legal age of purchase, which in the United States is twenty-one. There was an overwhelming opinion that alcopops were made to taste like lemonade in order to lure young people into trying them: 90 per cent of teenagers and 67 per cent of adults took this view.
The poll also showed that:
41 per cent of teenagers had tried alcopops;
90 per cent of teenagers agreed that drinking these new, sweeter drinks would make it more likely that they would try other alcoholic beverages;
twice as many 14 to 16 year olds preferred them to beer or mixed drinks;
more than half of all the teenagers questioned pointed to attributes of the products – their sweet taste, the disguised taste of alcohol, and their easy-to-drink character – as major reasons why they would choose them in preference to beer, wine, or cocktails.
Hacker has no doubt about the motivation of the drink industry: "Companies that market starter brews and alcopops aren't peddling adult drinks. Those alcopop drinks can have serious implications for America's youth and for alcohol-related problems throughout society." It has been shown in many studies that early onset of drinking means a greater likelihood of problems later in life. George Hacker quoted a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism which indicated that young people who begin drinking before the age of fifteen are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependency that those who delay starting until they are aged twenty one.
Research shows that ten million Americans between the ages of twelve and twenty drink alcohol and, according to CSPI, it kills more teenagers than all the illegal drugs combined. In addition, the Center says that alcohol is a major factor in the four main causes of death among teenagers – car accidents, unintentional injuries, homicides, and suicides. Figures calculated for the U.S. Department of Justice show that underage drinking cost the nation something of the order of $53 billion in 1996 alone.
The CSPI's alcopop campaign is a model of successful advocacy. The Globe asked George Hacker how it was done:
From the very beginning, says Hacker, we planned our efforts to maximize the potential for media exposure. Even in advance of our research activities, we "pitched" the story (alcopops' appeal to underage persons) to a number of television and print outlets, and, as a result received early coverage in Newsweek that brought credibility (and other reporters) to the issue. By hooking up, early on, and working closely with a popular television news magazine for a lengthier feature story, we were able to educate the producers and frame the issue on our terms.
We also took care to: audio and videotape our focus groups of teenagers (who, unaided, said brilliantly provocative things about alcopops) for later use in the media; create strong visuals and a solid press package that would slice through ordinary news clutter. We recruited a U.S. Congressman and several strong, representative youth-advocacy and alcoholism organisations as allies at the press-conference, and even sponsored taste tests for reporters of several brands of alcopops to demonstrate how much like soft drinks, as opposed to alcohol, they tasted.
In addition, our press materials provocatively reported a national poll (by a prominent polling firm) that demonstrated the new alcopop drinks "lured" teens to alcohol. We dubbed them "starter suds." In those materials, we also announced demands that the appropriate government agencies investigate and do something about the new teen-oriented concoctions. In anticipation of our press event, we left few stones unturned, and aggressively promoted the story to television networks. Fortuitously, our press conference coincided, generally, with the introduction of the first television ads for Mike's Hard Lemonade, one of the more popular brands. Their off-beat presentations also received some coverage.
CSPI's alcopops' campaign will continue as one element in our efforts to combat alcohol marketing to young people. In particular, this issue provides strong evidence of the need for a national media campaign to counter underage drinking, another measure we have been promoting among national law makers.