Investigation Finds Market-Leading ‘Sparks’ Illegally Targets Underage Consumers, Poses Dangers to Health and Safety
SAN FRANCISCO (Dec. 18, 2008)-City Attorney Dennis Herrera today joined 13 state attorneys general in announcing an agreement with MillerCoors in which the beer company will stop producing all caffeinated alcoholic beverages following a multi-jurisdictional investigation that alleged the drinks were unsafe, deceptively advertised as energy drinks, and illegally marketed to young people. As a result of the agreement reached by Herrera and state attorneys general across the nation, MillerCoors will no longer produce caffeinated “Sparks,” “Sparks Plus,” “Sparks Light,” or other alcoholic energy drinks.
Alcoholic energy drinks like Sparks are pre-mixed sweetened beverages that combine alcohol with high levels of caffeine (and guarana, taurine, ginseng and other ingredients associated with non-alcoholic energy drinks). Sparks was invented in San Francisco by the local beverage marketing company, McKenzie River Corporation, which sold the product to Miller Brewing Company in 2006. Sparks is the leading caffeinated alcoholic beverage on the market.
“Caffeine and alcohol are a combustible mix, especially for young people, creating ‘wide-awake drunks’ who are less aware that they are intoxicated and more likely to endanger themselves and others,” said Herrera. “MillerCoors is being a responsible industry leader in removing these dangerous products from the market and is taking an important step toward protecting public safety and youth.”
The investigation Herrera’s office took part in revealed that MillerCoors sold and marketed Sparks in violation of California consumer protection statutes by selling an unsafe product containing a dangerous mix of alcohol and caffeine and failing to disclose its effects to consumers; making false or misleading statements about the health and energizing effects of Sparks; and directing advertisements of Sparks to consumers under the age of 21
San Francisco, along with the states of Arizona, California, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, and Oklahoma, asserted that MillerCoors made misleading health-related statements about the energizing effects of Sparks and marketed the drink to underage youth. The company advertised Sparks with images of batteries, rocket ships, and powered snowboards. In an apparent effort to capitalize on the enormous popularity of energy drinks among young people, the company marketed the products to underage consumers on MySpace, Facebook, and other Web sites popular among youth, and distributed Sparks for free at underage or non-age-verified events such as house parties and music concerts. The company additionally engaged William Ocean, the 2007 winner of the Cuervo Black U.S. Air Guitar Championship, to promote the product.
A recently published study found that college students who mix alcohol and energy drinks were more likely to be hurt, sexually assaulted or drive drunk than those who only drank alcohol. In addition, college students who reported drinking alcohol mixed with energy drinks engage in increased heavy episodic drinking and have twice as many episodes of weekly drunkenness.
Under the terms of the agreement announced this morning, MillerCoors will also pay $550,000 to be divided among the thirteen participating states and San Francisco. The agreement provides that the company will:
- Stop manufacturing and marketing all caffeinated alcoholic beverages, including Sparks as currently formulated
- Reformulate its alcoholic energy drinks so that they do not contain caffeine or other stimulants such as guarana
- Stop using images in its marketing that imply energy or power, like the battery-themed +/- symbols on its can
- Stop particular marketing themes that appeal to underage youth, eliminating advertisements that feature a bright orange-stained tongue and not renewing its contract with William Ocean
- Immediately discontinue the Sparks Web site
The second largest beer company in the U.S. market, MillerCoors was formed earlier this year as a joint-venture between Molson Coors Brewing Co. and SABMiller’s unit in the United States. The largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch, announced in June that it would remove caffeine and other stimulants from its own alcoholic energy drinks, Tilt and Bud Extra.