A similar threat from CSPI in 2006 to sue Kellogg Co. over marketing of food products to kids helped launch a process that led to major food companies either withdrawing from or limiting marketing to children.
In the current case, however, there was no indication from either brewer that they would negotiate with CSPI.
State attorneys general also have been examining the marketing of the alcohol energy drinks.
CSPI today sent letters to both brewers contending that A-B's marketing of Tilt and Bud Extra and Miller's marketing of Sparks are unfair and deceptive because the caffeine, ginseng and guarana stimulants in the products haven't been approved for use in alcoholic beverages. The letters also contend that the limited marketing for the brands (none of the brands use TV) implies that the drinks boost energy and counteract the effects of alcohol. They also charge that the products' packaging and color are a deliberate appeal to younger consumers, some underage.
"There is a physiological effect and marketing message that consuming alcohol and caffeine together allows one to drink more alcohol without feeling as intoxicated as would otherwise be the case," said the letters, which give each company 30 days to come to the table.
Steve Gardner, CSPI's general counsel, said today at a Washington news conference that "these companies are intentionally spiking their products with stimulants" and CSPI's main intention is "getting this stuff off the market."
Higher alcohol content
The letters threaten suits in several states if the companies don't act, saying the marketing or labeling of the products violate Massachusetts, Texas, New Jersey and California statutes. California and Massachusetts, in some instances, allow consumers to sue on behalf of the state attorney general for deceptive marketing.
George Hacker, CSPI's director of alcohol policy, said all three products have a higher alcohol than regular beer -- one, he said, had double the alcohol of a shot of 80-proof liquor. He added that they are marketed in ways that suggest consumers can drink more of them than beer.
"They are supplying quite a bit more alcohol [than beer] with stimulants can keep people going so they are able to drink more," he said. He accused the two brewers of putting consumers "at risk" with "excessively dangerous products" that create "alert drunks."
Pete Miller, a Miller spokesman, said the company doesn't comment on litigation. "Our Sparks brands are federally approved and responsibly marketed to legal drinking age adults," he said.
Francine L. Katz, A-B's VP-communications and consumer affairs, said the products were approved by federal authorities. Calling CSPI "professional anti-alcohol activists," she accused the group of making "alarmist claims" to raise funds. She also questioned why brewers are being targeted when distilled-spirits makers offer caffeinated products with higher alcohol levels. She said that Tilt has a third of the caffeine in a 12-ounce cup of Starbucks Coffee, while Bud Extra has one fourth.
"This calls into question the true priorities of CSPI, a group that obtains funding by generating publicity for itself," she said in a statement.
"If these activists believe that caffeinated alcohol beverages should not be sold, they should persuade the relevant regulatory authorities to outlaw them entirely. But so long as the beverage category itself is lawful, Anheuser-Busch may properly compete within it. We will vigorously defend our legal right to do so, especially when improperly singled out by CSPI as a publicity-generating tactic."