Alcohol Energy Drinks Under Fire

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States attorneys general first went after the large brewer alcohol energy drinks Sparks and Tilt. The responses from MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch were to pull these products. Tilt is back in the market, but without caffeine I am told. This responsibility action by the large brewers was voluntary and their absence from the market lowered the temerature of the public debate. The result was that a growing popular segment of the alcohol market was left to others to capitalize on. Meanwhile FDA contacted manufacturers of 30 alcohol beverages that include a caffeine addition for information as to whether these products are generally regarded as safe.

FDA’s existing consideration of caffeine additions as generally regarded as safe is currently limited to a level of 0.02% in cola-type beverages in accordance with good manufacturing practice. The FDA request for this information within 30 days was filed in fall 2009, but still no FDA ruling has emerged in a puff of smoke from a chimney in our nation’s capital. Here we are in fall 2010, and the states attorneys general have tired of waiting. States including Michigan, Washington and New York are stepping toward their own limitations. The beer distributors association in Pennsylvania (retailer group–PA’s alcohol distribution system is complicated) has taken the step of asking its members not to distribute these products until safety questions and other concerns are answered. At the recent Beer Insights Seminar, Anthony von Mandl, head of the company that makes Mike’s Hard Lemonade discussed the rejection of entering that market by his company for responsibility reasons. He argues that a line should be drawn between products with caffeine additions and naturally caffeinated beverages from ingredient sources such as coffee, chocolate or tea. The author Kurt Vonnegut discussed the secret ingredient of coffee from his family’s award-winning beers made over 100 years ago.

The current frenzy over these products is frightening for small brewers. Hopefully natural caffeine sources won’t be swept into any of the bans. Natural ingredient-based caffeine does not appear to be a target. America’s craft brewers make beers, not energy drinks.

Spirits makers should also be concerned, as the Red Bull and vodka combination is a common order in bars. Could we also see legislation or regulation that prohibits a bartender from mixing an energy drink with a spirit?

There is a second piece of the puzzle with alcohol energy drinks that concerns some. One of these is whether the product labeling is at all misleading, hiding the true alcohol level from consumers. Another comment from von Mandl was that a 22-ounce single-serve can sold in a convenience store would likely leave a 180-pound man with a blood alcohol level that exceeds the legal driving limit in all 50 states, noting that the use pattern of products from the convenience channel (which dominates sales of alcohol energy drinks) is within 20 minutes. 

One thing for certain is you’ll be hearing more about whether there should be a place in the market for alcohol energy drinks.

Paul Gatza

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