Alcopops only look innocent, hook kids

The alcohol industry has found ways to make its products attractive to kids, and parents may not realize what it is their children are drinking.

So-called “alcopops” taste like fruit juice but can contain as much booze, or more, than some beers. Girls, in particular, love the sweet malt punch. Other beverages are packaged to look like popular energy drinks, but contain liquor.

“One of the big trends we are seeing is with alcopops. We've had clients who don't even realize they are alcohol,” said Tiffanie Ferguson, an adolescent program coordinator at Akron, Ohio's Community Health Center. So popular are the sweet drinks that Ferguson and colleague Rebecca Mason, director of outpatient services, believe they are causing more underage girls to abuse alcohol. “It's totally a marketing ploy,” Mason said. According to the state Department of Youth and Human Services, one-third of teenage girls have tried alcopops, such as the various Smirnoff and Mike's Hard flavors.

“I had a client give (a sip of) Smirnoff to their toddler thinking it was just juice,” Ferguson said.


And then there's the dangerously sweet combination in cans that look like energy drinks but contain booze, or both caffeine and liquor.

Intentionally or by accident, a child could grab an alcoholic beverage that looks like an energy drink, and hand it to Mom to pay for at the register. Without taking a closer look at the label, Mom may think it's just another brand of nonalcoholic energy beverage. Sparks Red contains 8 percent alcohol but no caffeine; Joose has both caffeine and 9.9 percent liquor; Four Loko has caffeine and 12 percent liquor, all substantially more than most beers.Because alcohol is a depressant and caffeine is a stimulant, a mix of substances can confuse the nervous system. Rather than feeling tired after drinking booze, the caffeine causes a high, masking the feeling of intoxication. The result? Wired, wide-awake drunks.

In November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent 27 letters to manufacturers and distributors of caffeinated alcoholic drinks, challenging them to scientifically prove that the drinks are safe. So far, the FDA has received 19 answers and is reviewing the information.

A year or so ago, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors agreed — after complaints from some attorneys general, including Ohio's Richard Cordray — to reformulate their popular drinks. FDA spokesman Michael Herndon explained that the companies removed the added caffeine from Tilt, Bud Extra and Sparks, agreeing not to produce any caffeinated alcoholic beverages in the future.


A lot of alcohol abuse by girls goes undetected. That's because society tends to place lighter consequences on them when compared to boys, Mason said. And girls are more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior or be victimized while drunk.

“I agree that girls would go for the non-alcohol tasting beverages,” said Meghan Caprez, a 16-year-old from Akron who's a member of the Beacon Journal's young readers group.“It's all about fitting in nowadays. I feel lucky that I have a group of friends that aren't interested in that stuff, but I've seen kids my age drink. It's really sad that they feel that they must do this to fit in.”

Despite laws that prohibit anyone under 21 in Ohio from buying or consuming alcohol, kids report it's still easy to get. If it's not from a parent's liquor cabinet, perhaps it's at a relative's or friend's home. But there's another way.

“Honestly, a lot of stores in Akron sell liquor to underage people. They (adolescents) develop a relationship with the local corner store and get what they want,” said Ferguson, who counsels area young folks. And the ease of it all contributes to binge drinking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers it binge drinking when men consume five or more drinks, and when women have four or more drinks in about two hours. “I'm shocked ... because most of the kids we work with do not think that five drinks is binge drinking,” Ferguson said.

Experts note that the brain matures remarkably during adolescence and liquor can cause irreversible damage. It's not just kids who are getting hammered. The amount of hard liquor (more than 21 percent alcohol) sold in the state of Ohio was up again last year, extending a trend that began a decade ago. For kids, Ferguson said, alcohol is the drug of choice, followed by marijuana, prescription pain pills and over-the-counter medications. And though we may have heard it before, it's worth noting that the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates 5,000 people under age 21 die each year in the United States from injuries caused by underage drinking. Parents should give their children clear consequences for using alcohol and stick to them. “Remember,” Ferguson said, “a child who is dependent on alcohol will get better and better at lying and deceiving.” So be vigilant. If you suspect your child has a problem, seek counseling. Don't minimize the issue if it's a daughter who's getting drunk. And look for activities that can keep your teen busy and away from temptations. “Ask yourself,” Ferguson said, “what can our child do for fun that doesn't include a mood-altering chemical?”


Here are some tips for parents who suspect a child may be drinking alcohol. Don't ignore the problem. Many parents choose not to address it, even when their child comes home intoxicated. This may communicate to your teen that you feel his or her drinking is OK. Try to talk with your teen before alcohol becomes a problem. Don't feel like a hypocrite. Teenagers will go out of their way to remind their parents that they either drink now or that they drank when they were younger. Don't let your fear of sounding like a hypocrite get in the way of your child's safety. Don't stop talking. Many teens will do anything to avoid the subject, even if it means becoming disrespectful. If a parent stops the conversation to lecture or punish a teenager for becoming disrespectful, then the opportunity to talk with the child is lost. The teen's disrespect may really be a sign of discomfort with the topic. Be careful about making deals. Some parents will let their teenagers drink at home to avoid drunken driving. But you may be sending the wrong message, and you are allowing your child to break the law. Seek professional help. If your efforts to communicate have failed and your concerns are growing, get help before things get worse.

Source: Summa Barberton Hospital