The brightly-colored, tall aluminum cans with striking visual designs may look like any of the other hundreds of energy drinks popular with young consumers, but they are different.
Energy drinks containing as much as 11 percent alcohol are being sold in some local convenience stores. Members of Hall County’s Drug Free Coalition worry that they’re finding their way into the hands of underage people.
"We’re concerned, because these drinks are targeted to youth," said J.P. Banks, Project Coordinator of the Drug Free Coalition of Hall County.
This month, coalition members are surveying Hall County stores to see where alcoholic energy drinks are being sold and how they are marketed. Banks says the coalition wants to determine the "four Ps of marketing" for the drinks locally: product, price, placement and promotion. "We don’t want to put vendors out of business; our goal is to address substance abuse and underage drinking," he said.
Energy drinks — soft drinks that contain high levels of caffeine — have become a $4.8 billion market in the U.S. In 2008, there were more than 270 energy drinks on the market, according to consumer research firm Mintel.
Banks points to studies that conclude that the youth market for energy drinks and so-called "alcopops" — fruity, carbonated alcoholic drinks — is sizable.
More than 30 percent of people age 12 to 20 regularly consume energy drinks, according to a report by the Marin Institute, a alcohol industry watchdog group.
When energy drinks containing alcohol debuted, "public health and safety officials became alarmed by the newest entry into the world of alcoholic beverages," the report states.
The report says that "teenagers and young adults are the core consumer group for (energy drinks)" and concludes that the same marketing strategies, including "grass roots" promotions and the use of youth-oriented Web sites, are similar for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic energy drinks.
Banks said he can hardly tell the difference between the two from their packaging.
Gregg Raduka, director of prevention intervention for Georgia’s Council on Alcohol and Drugs, said many adults are unaware that energy drinks like "Sparks" and "Joose" contain alcohol.
Raduka said alcoholic energy drinks and "alcopops," "really fuel the epidemic of underage drinking because they serve as a bridge from soft drinks to alcohol."
A study by the International Institute for Alcohol Awareness found that in 2005, underage drinkers consumed 13 percent of all alcohol sold in Georgia.
Whether most underage drinkers are buying booze themselves with fake IDs, merchants aren’t carding them or older folks are buying it for them isn’t known yet locally, Banks said.
Banks noted that in his informal survey of Hall County stores, there were more that did not sell alcoholic energy drinks than those that did.
The American Beverage Association has maintained that caffeinated energy drinks made by their members are not marketed to teenagers.
Two industry giants have already responded to the criticism, however. Last year Anheuser-Busch discontinued its alcoholic energy drink "Tilt" under pressure from 11 attorneys general who said it was geared toward young consumers. MillerCoors in December agreed to remove the caffeine from its alcoholic "Sparks" drink in an agreement with 13 states and the city of San Francisco.
Raduka said those moves amount to an admission that alcoholic energy drinks fuel underage drinking.
"I’m glad that the industry is willing to take some of these products off the market," Raduka said. "The problem is, there are so many more still out there."