293. "Son of Joe Camel," (Alcopops), Washington Post, (August 17, 1997), p. C2.
Marketing industry insiders call them "training wheels," products sold to teenagers and children that entice them and ultimately to get them "hooked." Apple and MacIntosh computers, donated to high schools, are considered training wheels. Less benign are intoxicating new products called "alcopops," the liquor industries equivalent of Joe Camel.
Alcopops are alcoholic lemonades, colas, and fruit-flavored frozen malts that typically contain 4 to 6 percent alcohol, often more than beer. Sold in colorful packages, squeeze pouches, and soda bottles they bear such catchy names as "Freeze and Squeeze," "Yellow Belly" and "Two Dogs Lemon Brew." They sometimes carry flashy logos similar to those of nonalcoholic fruit drinks and teas. Designed to appeal to teenagers, alcopops have been placed in bins that contain ice cream bars and fruit drinks rather than in the coolers that hold beer and wine.
Still, you are unlikely to find your high school children or neighbors' kids popping these alcoholic-laced juices any time soon. The story of how the lid was kept on the alcopops is worth telling not only because it will keep teen--and adult--alcoholism from rising even faster, but because it provides a fine primer in civic action.
Alcopops were test-marketed in five U.S. cities this summer by the McKenzie River Corporation in five cities with significant minority populations, New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, in about fifty shops per city, most of which were reported to be in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The new alcoholic, fruity products are the creation of St. Ides, which specializes in the manufacturing of cheap, strong liquors, such as St. Ides Special Blend Malt Liquor, which primarily are bought by Black and Hispanic men.
When alcopops first appeared, they were met with a wave of protest, especially in New York City. The press ran daily unfavorable reports. Borough presidents protested the marketing ploy in no uncertain terms, stating it was directly aimed at children and minorities. Civic and church groups joined in. The New York City commissioner of consumer affairs expressed dismay. Inspectors cited a delicatessen in Harlem for selling these drinks to minors. New York's unconventional mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who occasionally stands up to business, threatened to shut down the offending stores unless they ceased the sale of these new pops to minors. From DC, the critical voice of the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest was heard. In California, where similar products popped up in packages resembling Kool-Aid, and sold for less than a buck, two Los Angeles assemblymen threatened action.
Within days, McKenzie River announced that it would withdraw the offending pops from the shelves.
Lesson one: civic action has the best chance to succeed when it starts early. This lesson is highlighted by the fact that in Britain, where alcopops have been sold for a while, and where by now numerous shops are counting on them for profits, and teenagers for a sweet high, canning them has proven to be rather difficult. One survey found that as many as four out of ten children had at least tasted the beverages. In Britain, alcohol has even been included in milk products marketed under names such as Moo and Super Milch, and in popsicles, which, unlike the American products, are not even marked as containing alcohol. Some parents have found children as young as four falling ill on them [see picture]. "I wonder when they will bring out a bottle with a teat on it," said Eric Appleby, director of the London-based Alcohol Concern. Even the new Labour government, rather distressed about these pops, has not found a way to stop them so far, although a few chain stores, including Co-op and Sainsbury, have agreed to drop them.
Consumer activists often rely on the government to pass laws or regulations to safeguard the public. However, as our experience with Prohibition, the "war" against substance abuse, and the difficulties in curbing cigarette smoking show, the government alone cannot do the job, and for it to do whatever job it can, it requires wide public support. The fact that in rapid succession the press, consumer activist groups, church and civic groups, and public officials all joined together, probably is the main reason for the success of the New York City drive. It takes a village to keep the lid on.
Alcohol marketers, backed by libertarian ideologies, argue that they only are selling what the public wants to buy. And they often fall back on an argument repeated frequently by tobacco companies: that this is a free country, that adults have a right to choose, that they know that they will live with the consequences of their actions, but if they choose to lead a risky life, we are not to stop them. Next thing, the industries sneer, the government will ban sky diving and skiing. Stephen K. Lambright, a vice president at Anheuser-Busch, said that the brewery would continue to exercise "our right to advertise lawful products to adult customers throughout the United States in the media of our choosing."
Consumer activists respond that consumers are subject to persuasive advertising, appeals to motives of which they are unaware or are unable to control. And above all, when it comes to addictive products, they often do not understand how difficult it is to break the habit once it is acquired. Such debates, though, rarely win these days in the public arena.
Children are another matter. Children, even libertarians acknowledge, are not yet formed persons. They are not able to make reasoned choices and they clearly need protection.
Activists also find that it is a good year for children. Joe Camel has received his own death sentence. Parents learned this week that they will get tax credits for their children. Uninsured children will get health insurance. TV programs got ratings. Alcopops are on their way back to the warehouse. Who knows, next maybe we can get the junk off our children's TV hour?
Civic Action is Never Done
So far the good news. But nobody should uncork the champagne and celebrate. The alcohol industry's profits are stagnant. It has been looking for ways to entice new customers. If the young do not get "trained," and eventually hooked, the number of alcohol consumers will continue to die off. Alcoholic beverages aimed at minors have been tried before. In Canada, where the sales of alcoholic lemonade preceded those in the U.S., these alcopops are "the most successful launch of a new beverage product in a decade," according to E. William Sharpe, CEO of Lakeport Brewing Corporation. He also stated that his company plans to expand to the northeast U.S. market soon. In 1996, the Bass Company test-marketed alcopops in Miami and San Diego, and the British company Thornlodge Ltd. was negotiating with an unnamed American distributor to market Mrs. Pucker's, another alcopop, in the U.S. A Minneapolis ice cream company recently won approval from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to market ice creams with a level of alcohol slightly lower than other alcopops, but that still are dressed up in children's colors and adorned with names such as Pink Squirrel and Grasshopper. Those concerned need to check the ice cream bin next time they shop, and keep their flyers handy and phone banks ready.
Amitai Etzioni is the Author of The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (New York: Basic Books, 1996) and director of The George Washington University Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies.