HOULTON, Maine — Substance abuse prevention groups are questioning whether it is acceptable for a “botanically brewed beverage” that contains a small amount of alcohol to be sold to minors in Maine.
Officials from the Aroostook Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition and the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse recently learned that a Houlton High School student brought a bottle of Fentimans Victorian Lemonade to school that was purchased at a local store.
The product was created in the United Kingdom in 1905 and is now distributed in the U.S.
A 22-ounce bottle sells for $2.25.
According to a statement from the North American branch of the company, its products are “Botanically Brewed Beverages” and its Web site states that products such as the lemonade are “classified as sodas or soft drinks.”
“Naturally fermented, they contain less than 0.5 percent alcohol, so they may be enjoyed by all ages and offered by every retail outlet, restaurant, pub, hotel or … well, anyone,” the statement reads.
This has raised the ire of substance abuse prevention groups who believe the drink should not be sold to people under 21 years old. Officials from the ASAP coalition and MAPSA have contacted state liquor licensing officials and the state Attorney General’s office to have them define exactly who can sell and who can purchase the product.
Some substance abuse educators are wondering if the drink should fall under the category of “imitation liquor.” Under state law, “imitation liquor” means “any product containing less than ½ of 1 percent alcohol by volume which seeks to imitate by appearance, taste and smell liquor or which is designed to carry the impression to the purchaser that the beverage has an alcohol content.”
Imitation liquor cannot be sold to minors or consumed by minors in Maine. A minor found guilty of consuming imitation liquor faces a fine of between $200 and $400. Any person who violates the law by selling it to a minor commits a civil violation and faces up to a $500 fine.
The imitation liquor stance is rejected by Fentimans North America. The lemonade product is not marketed as imitation liquor or a nonalcoholic beverage and is not labeled as such, according to the company. In fact, several Internet sites sell it, marketing it as “brewed soda” or “soda.”
Clare Desrosiers, project director for the ASAP coalition, said the product contains alcohol and “should not be sold to minors under 21.”
“I think this should not be sold to youth,” she said on Tuesday. “To me, it is sold in what looks like a liquor bottle.”
“This is unacceptable,” MAPSA’s Melissa Boyd agreed. “We cannot sell alcohol to children in any way, shape, or form and we must make these manufacturers accountable for their actions.”
Houlton High School Principal Martin Bouchard said Wednesday that the issue came to light in September after a student brought the drink to school.
“The student saw the label as he was drinking it and realized that there was some alcohol in it,” he explained. “The student did not want to get in trouble and brought it to a teacher. Less than half of the bottle was gone. There was no intent on the student’s part to break any school rules or laws. This was just a harmless incident.”
Bouchard said that the bottle was brought to him and that he contacted the Houlton Police Department because he was not sure about the law regarding the sale of such a beverage. He said that the student was drinking from a bottle of the product that had an ingredient list indicating that it has “not more than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume.”
Boyd said that after MAPSA heard about the issue, they contacted state officials.
“We have been waiting for an answer from them,” she said. “But we did not want to wait too long before we sent out notice to parents that this drink is out there.”
Greg Warwick, the president of Fentimans North America, acknowledged Wednesday that the beverage is not alcohol free, but it does have less than 0.5 percent of alcohol and “is safe for sale and consumption by people of any age.”
Warwick said the beverage is made by taking products such as ginger, water, sugar and yeast and fermenting it.
“We remove some components of the product during that process and also add flavoring,” he said. “What we end up with is a product that is a mixture of less than ½ percent alcohol because of the fermentation process. The FDA [Food and Drug Administration] has deemed this safe for all ages. There should be no restrictions on the distribution or sale of the product.”
He said that naturally occurring fermentation can leave a similar range of alcohol in beverages such as orange juice and in other products that use natural extracts.
Jeff Austin, supervisor of liquor licensing and compliance at the state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operation’s Liquor Licensing and Inspection unit, said that some are concerned about the issue and that it has been passed on to the AG’s office.
“This is an issue that is being looked at,” Austin said. “It was just brought to my attention a month ago. Right now, I am cautioning people that maybe they should not sell this product to minors until we get this issue cleared up.”
Four stores checked in the Houlton area did not carry the product and police did not know where the student purchased it.
While Houlton Police Chief Butch Asselin agreed that an individual would have to consume a huge quantity of the drink for it to have any effect, he said that a closer look should be taken regarding the “imitation liquor” issue.
He said the appearance of the drink and the minuscule alcohol content might entice youth to drink it to look “cooler” or more adult.
“You just really do not want to promote drinking to youth,” he said. “If you Google recipes for Victorian lemonade, you see that gin is listed in some recipes, and some youth may know that. The label also says that it contains ‘not more than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume.’ Well, how much is in it? I surmise that it is closer to 0.5 percent than 0.1 percent.”
He also said that to some, the bottle and its cap may look like one that contains an alcoholic beverage.
“It just raises some concern,” he said. “It is similar to why we do not make or market candy cigarettes anymore. It is just not a good example to youth.”
The status of the investigation by the AG’s office could not be determined Wednesday.