Rowe leads AGs’ drive to douse Sparks

Posted Dec. 18, 2008, at 8:30 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Saying underage drinking continues to be a serious national problem, Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe announced that the makers of the best-selling alcoholic energy drink in the country, Sparks, is ending the sale of the product that several states believe is aimed at teens.

“This agreement is a huge win for the health and safety of our nation’s young people,” Rowe said. “These drinks are popular with young people who wrongly believe that the stimulating effects of caffeine will counteract the intoxicating effects of alcohol. This belief is fueled by unconscionable aggressive marketing campaigns that target youth.”

Last June, Rowe and several other state attorneys general announced that Anheuser-Busch would stop producing alcoholic energy drinks, including Tilt and Bud Extra. With the elimination of Sparks, sold by MillerCoors LLC, nearly 85 percent of all alcoholic energy drinks available at the start of this year will be eliminated from the market.

Rowe, the out-going co-chairman of the National Association of Attorneys General Youth Access to Alcohol Committee, was praised by his peers on the conference call news conference for his lead role in getting both Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors to pull those products from the market.

“Attorney General Rowe has been a real leader on this issue,” said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. “To anyone that believes that these drinks are harmless, they are clearly an insidious and insane product that deservedly is now down the drain.”

The attorneys general said studies have indicated that college students who mix alcohol and energy drinks engage in increased heavy drinking and have twice as many episodes of weekly drunkenness. College students who reported consuming alcohol mixed with energy drinks also had a significantly higher prevalence of alco-hol-related consequences, such as sexual assault and injury.

In a statement, MillerCoors president and chief commercial officer Tom Long said the company has agreed voluntarily to reformulate Sparks to remove caffeine, taurine, guarana and ginseng from the product. The company also agreed not to produce caffeinated alcoholic beverages in the future.

“As a responsible company, we are always willing to listen to societal partners and consider changes to our business to reinforce our commitment to alcohol responsibility,” he said. “While we have listened closely to the AGs and respect their position, we strongly disagree with their inaccurate allegations about the marketing and sale of Sparks.”

Under Maine’s consumer protection and trade practices statutes the state investigation alleged, among other things, that MillerCoors made false and misleading health-related statements about the energizing effects of Sparks and illegally marketed the products to underage youth.

“We believe and we have proof that these products were marketed to young people,” Rowe said.

He said studies indicate that about 20 percent of the sales of Sparks are to those under 21 years of age.

“Sparks is the number one selling alcoholic energy drink in Maine,” said Assistant Attorney General Jessica Maurer, one of the lawyers that worked on the case. “Sparks was in every convenience store across the state.”

Rowe is term-limited and leaves office next month, but Attorney General-elect Janet Mills sat in on the news conference. She agrees with Rowe’s actions and said underage drinking will be a priority for her.

“It doesn’t end today,” she said, “There are other products out there being marketed to young people, and we will continue to participate in this effort to stop the marketing of products to underage drinkers.”

Mills served as district attorney for Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties for 14 years and vividly remembers visiting car accident scenes where teens had been killed by the drunken driving of another teen.

“Those scenes haunt you and you never forget them,” Mills said.

She also agreed with Rowe that federal officials have not policed companies adequately in both the content of products and the marketing of products, forcing the states to take action. She hopes that will change under the Obama administration.

The agreement in brief

MillerCoors will:

Discontinue manufacturing and marketing all caffeinated alcoholic beverages, including Sparks as now formulated, by Jan. 10, 2009.

Reformulate the Sparks brand to remove caffeine, guarana, ginseng and taurine.

Eliminate all references in advertising to caffeinated formulations and not promote Sparks as a mixer for caffeinated drinks.

Remove current content on the Sparks Web site. Any new Web site may market only the reformulated Sparks.

Make a $550,000 payment to be distributed among participating states to pay for the cost of the investigation. Maine’s share has yet to be determined.

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