ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Sen. Charles Schumer is urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the marketing of flavored alcoholic beverages with caffeine that appear to be explicitly designed to attract underage drinkers.
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In a letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, Schumer said Sunday that the colorful cans are also designed to befuddle parents and police with labels that resemble nonalcoholic energy drinks. He said popular drinks such as Joose and Four Loko also use very small print to disclose alcohol content of up to 12 percent, about twice that of beer.
Michael Mikhail, chief executive of United Brands Co. of La Mesa, Calif., which makes Joose, said the company markets nationally through beer distributors and target consumers who can drink alcohol legally.
"We don't condone nontraditional marketing. We position our product toward at least the age of 21 and older," Mikhail said. "We do not target college kids. We don't condone it."
Schumer, a New York Democrat, sees it differently. He said 24-ounce cans of Four Loko and Joose are designed to appear hip with flashy colors and funky designs with appeal to younger consumers. They come in flavors such as grape and orange and can cost as little as $2.50 a can.
Calls to Phusion Projects Inc. of Chicago, maker of Four Loko, were not immediately returned.
FDA hasn't approved amped drinks
In 2008, Anheuser-Busch InBev NV and MillerCoors LLC stopped selling caffeinated alcoholic beverages including Tilt and Sparks under pressure from several states and federal regulators, but smaller companies continued to sell such products and have since increased sales. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said earlier investigations showed the big company's beverages were aggressively marketed to a younger crowd.
Last November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration notified more than two dozen manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages that it has never specifically approved the addition of caffeine to alcoholic drinks and began studying whether it is unsafe and should be outlawed. The agency noted the mix's growing popularity among up to 26 percent of college students and its potential health and safety issues. They included a Wake Forest University study that students who combine caffeine and alcohol are likelier to suffer alcohol-related injuries than those drinking alcohol without caffeine.
"It is my understanding that caffeine-infused, flavored malt beverages are becoming increasingly popular among teenagers," Schumer wrote in his letter Sunday. "The style and promotion of these products is extremely troubling. Frankly, it looks to me as if manufacturers are trying to mislead adults and business owners who sell these products, while at the same time actively courting underage drinkers. This type of marketing is, at minimum, grossly irresponsible."
In 2003, the FTC investigated the marketing of flavored malt beverages and the impact on underage drinkers and found most complying with industry codes for ad placement targeting adults. Schumer says that manufacturers since "have continued to push new products in new ways that arguably cross the line by targeting younger consumers."
FTC spokeswoman Betsy Lordan said the agency has continued to investigate complaints against beverage makers, including a 2009 settlement with Constellation Brands over its advertising that consumers of the caffeinated alcohol drink Wide Eyes will remain alert. The FTC said there was no scientific evidence to support the claim.
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