WASHINGTON—The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest today filed suit against MillerCoors Brewing Company, formerly Miller, over its alcoholic energy drink, Sparks. The product has more alcohol than regular beer and contains unapproved additives, including the stimulants caffeine and guarana. The lawsuit is asking the Superior Court of the District of Columbia to stop MillerCoors from selling the controversial drink, which is also under scrutiny from state attorneys general.
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.
Sparks contain 6 to 7 percent alcohol by volume, as opposed to regular beer, which typically has 4 or 5 percent alcohol. Also unlike beer, Sparks’ appeal to young people is enhanced by its sweet citrusy taste, redolent of SweeTarts candy, and the bright color of orange soda. (Sparks Light also contains the artificial sweetener sucralose). In October, MillerCoors plans to release Sparks Red, which will have 8 percent alcohol by volume.
“MillerCoors is trying to hook teens and ’tweens on a dangerous drink,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. “This company’s behavior is reckless, predatory, and in the final analysis, likely to disgust a judge or a jury.”
Sparks’ juvenile web site and guerilla marketing appeal to young consumers, according to CSPI. The web site offers a recipe for a drink called a “Lunchbox,” consisting of half Miller beer and half Sparks, and elsewhere, the site proposes consuming Sparks for breakfast alongside omelets. The company also hosts give-aways of Sparks at house parties, sponsors events unrelated to beer such as art shows, and engages in other unconventional marketing practices, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. CSPI’s court filing notes that private gatherings such as house parties do not have the same licensing or other safeguards as public establishments that prevent minors from accessing alcohol.
“Mix alcohol and stimulants with a young person’s sense of invincibility and you have a recipe for disaster,” said George A. Hacker, director of CSPI’s alcohol policies project. “Sparks is a drink designed to mask feelings of drunkenness and to encourage people to keep drinking past the point at which they otherwise would have stopped. The end result is more drunk driving, more injuries, and more sexual assaults.”
According to a 2006 study, the stimulants in these products do not reduce alcohol’s negative effects on motor skills and reaction times but do impair people’s perception of intoxication. As a result, drinkers may engage in risky behavior, such as driving, because they feel less drunk but in reality are too intoxicated to get behind wheel.
CSPI’s lawsuit also contends that it is illegal to use caffeine, guarana, ginseng, and taurine in alcoholic beverages. The federal agency with primary responsibility for regulating alcoholic beverages, the Treasury Department’s Tax and Trade Bureau, says alcoholic beverages may contain only ingredients considered General Recognized as Safe, or GRAS, by the Food and Drug Administration. But the FDA 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.
In February, CSPI notified Anheuser-Busch and Miller of its intent to sue both companies over caffeinated alcoholic drinks. In June, Anheuser-Busch entered into separate agreements with CSPI and 11 state attorneys general in which the brewer agreed to take caffeine and other unapproved additives out of its two alcoholic energy drinks, Bud Extra and Tilt. Anheuser-Busch paid the 11 states $200,000 to reimburse them for the cost of the investigation and called on other brewers and distillers not to market pre-packaged caffeinated alcoholic drinks.
That agreement with Anheuser-Busch was the first alcohol-related accomplishment for CSPI’s litigation project. Since its founding in 2005, CSPI’s litigation unit has, on its own or in cooperation with private law firms, negotiated settlements or voluntary changes to marketing practices with Airborne, Kellogg, Frito-Lay, Quaker Oats, and others.