By Mike Hughlett, Chicago Tribune reporterTake one of the hottest trends in the beverage world — energy drinks — combine it with alcohol, and what do you get?
A brew with a wallop of liquor that also delivers a wide-eyed caffeine punch, masking intoxication in the process, according to concerned attorneys general in 25 states, including Illinois.
With the growing popularity of such buzz-brews among younger drinkers, those officials Wednesday asked MillerCoors to drop plans to introduce Sparks Red, a new stimulant-laced malt beverage that has even more alcohol than its current energy-brew offerings.
MillerCoors, a joint venture of the nation's second- and third-largest breweries that is in the process of moving its headquarters to Chicago, said it has no plans to do so, which may lead to legal action against it.
The plea to MillerCoors is the latest move in a crusade against the nation's top beermakers over the hybrid beverages, which breweries have become enamored with as a partial cure for anemic sales of conventional beer.
In February, attorneys general from several states, including Illinois' Lisa Madigan, subpoenaed Miller and Anheuser-Busch, the nation's biggest beermaker, asking for information about energy-alcohol drinks.
Both companies have reportedly complied with the subpoenas, and, in June, Anheuser-Busch said it would remove caffeine and other stimulants from its Tilt and Bud Extra offerings.
Now, the pressure is being ratcheted up on MillerCoors, and not only by the attorneys general. Last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued the company, claiming stimulants used in the Sparks offerings aren't approved for alcoholic beverages.
On Wednesday, 25 attorneys general sent a letter to Leo Kiely, MillerCoors chief executive, saying the introduction of Sparks Red, slated for Oct. 1, "mocks [Miller's] oft-stated goal of promoting safe and responsible enjoyment of its products."
The group could end up suing MillerCoors. "If they continue to proceed in this manner, it will be one of the options we'll look at," Madigan said.
The attorneys general claim drinks like Sparks particularly appeal to young people and underage drinkers. And they say young drinkers are vulnerable because of limited judgment and a penchant for riskier behavior.
Pete Marino, a spokesman for MillerCoors, said the company "goes to great lengths to ensure all of our products are marketed in a very responsible manner to legal drinking-age adults." And MillerCoors' Sparks beverages, "have all been approved for sale by the federal government."
With 8 percent alcohol, Sparks Red would pack more of a punch than Sparks' original version or Sparks Plus, which contain 6 percent and 7 percent alcohol, respectively. Most conventional beers have a 4 percent to 5 percent alcohol content.
Like most energy drinks, Sparks is also loaded with caffeine. The attorneys general say that adding caffeine to alcoholic beverages reduces drinkers' sense of intoxication. "They are getting drunker faster and are not feeling the effects of being drunk," Madigan said.
Research on the subject is limited. But in their letter to MillerCoors, the attorneys general cited a recent study that concluded college students who mix alcohol and energy drinks got drunk twice as often than those who consumed alcohol alone.
Bonnie - I applaud this action because energy drinks, with or without alcohol, are terrible dietary choices.