April 25th, 2006

Alcopops - Cute, Boozy and Pitched to Teenage Girls

By Ellen Tomson
Fort Wayne (IN) News Sentinel

Their names sound innocent or pretty: Skyy Blue, Frozen Paradise, Silver and Ice. And in television ads for the fruity and fizzy drinks, girls who look like teenagers appear to be active and having fun as they gulp the pastel liquids from wet, glistening bottles.

But the malt-based, 8-ounce carbonated drinks sometimes referred to as “alcopops,” “malternatives” or “FABs” (flavored alcoholic beverages), contain 4.5 to 6 percent alcohol, about the same as a beer.

The American Medical Association and the International Institute for Alcohol Awareness are among groups expressing concern about the marketing and underage consumption - especially by girls - of the drinks.

Many teenage girls mistakenly believe alcopops contain less alcohol than beer, and they are drinking the fruity drinks twice as often as boys are, according to the medical association.

An association study of drinking habits found one-third of girls older than 12 have tried alcopops (and one-fifth either threw up or passed out after drinking them).

“We’re alarmed and concerned with these findings,” said J. Edward Hill, medical association president. “The percentage of girls who drink is on the rise faster than boys, and the average age of their first drink is now 13.”

The popularity of flavored alcoholic drinks has prompted physicians to counsel young patients and parents about the health risks involved and advocate for changes in the labeling, marketing and promotion of the beverages to the underage U.S. population.

The medical association has sought labeling that discloses the alcohol content of drinks by percentage - not by proof. It opposes the promotion of alcopops during college and high school events and advertising that shows teens enjoying the drinks in social situations but omits warnings about health and other adverse consequences that could result from underage drinking.

“While the alcohol industry claims to target only legal-age drinkers, their ads reach millions of impressionable girls,” Hill says.

Alcopops often serve as “gateway” beverages to hard liquors, according to the AMA. And that, apparently, was the idea behind alcopops in the first place.

After the Boston Beer Co. launched its “Hard Core Cider” and “Twisted Tea” alcopops, brand-development manager Trish Rohrer was quoted in the (now-defunct) magazine Restaurants USA as saying, “With younger drinkers, their palates haven’t quite matured yet to drinks like bourbon. Malternatives are a sweeter drink, they’re easier to drink, and it takes less time to mature to the taste.”

More than half of all teens said they have seen alcopops ads, according to the medical association. The group’s survey also found more than 60 percent of teenage girls who said they have seen television, print or in-store ads, have tried alcopops.

While some teenagers don’t recall where they saw or heard alcopops ads, they usually do remember the social circumstances depicted in them and what made the drinks seem appealing.

“Because of the colors, they sort of look cute,” says Ali Oswalt, 17, a high school junior. “And in the commercials, they always look like they’re having so much fun. They’re usually on the beach, it’s tropical, and all the people in the ads are young and beautiful and skinny and tan.”

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WHAT GIRLS THINK

One-third of all girls older than 12 have tried flavored alcoholic drinks, and many girls mistakenly believe the drinks have less alcohol than beer.

Teenage girls who have tried alcopops or have heard of them said they were under the impression the drinks are targeted to teenage girls.

One of four teenage girls who have tried alcopops admits to either driving home afterward or riding in a vehicle driven by someone who had been drinking. One in six said she was sexually active after drinking.

By a four-to-one margin, teenage girls who have seen TV, print or in-store ads said they think alcopops are popular in their age group.

About 15 percent of teenage girls said they’ve heard alcopops ads on the radio; only 9 percent of women 21 and older said they’ve heard the ads.

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