SWEET BOOZE attracting teen drinkers, consumer group says

Tuesday, May 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Teen drinkers are being lured to booze by sweet, fruity ``alcohol pop'' drinks, consumer advocates contend.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, contending that teens in focus groups and other studies admit to downing ``hard lemonades'' and other fruit-flavored malt beverages, said Tuesday it would petition the government to crack down on marketing that appeals to underage drinkers.

``They may believe they are targeting adults,'' said George Hacker, an attorney who directs the group's alcohol policy department. ``But these products disguise the taste of alcohol and make it easier to drink. They are intended as bridges to other forms of alcohol.''

Federal government and industry officials say there are rules about whether companies can aim these sweet drinks at children. Manufacturers deny any attempt to create a teen-drinking market; they say there are plenty of adults of legal drinking age who prefer these alternative malt beverages.

``Adults like the taste of 'malternatives,''' said Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, a trade group of brewers large and small.

The drinks appeal to adults who desire lower alcohol content and a better taste than the bitterness hops adds to traditional beers, he said.

``For years adults have been drinking wine coolers, sweet wines, ciders, et cetera,'' Becker said. ``At the same time, underage drinking and drunk driving has declined.''

According to Beverage Retailer magazine, the fruit-flavored brews are rivaling the 1980s popularity of wine coolers.

Available in lemon, apple, berry, and orange flavors, sales of the beverages were about $90 million, or 4.1 million cases, last year, the magazine said.

The industry's packaging and advertising are regulated at the federal level by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Federal Trade Commission.

ATF officials say they regulate any labels that are misleading, in this case downplaying the alcohol content of the drinks.

``We want to safeguard against consumer deception,'' said spokesman James Crandall, who added that the Treasury Department agency is working on ways to strengthen its packaging and labeling guidelines.

The Health and Human Services Department funds programs that raise teens' awareness of ads that might be targeted at them, said Mark Weber, a spokesman for the department's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.