August 12th, 2008

Taking Shots at ShotPaks

By Jerry Hirsch
Los Angeles Times

The makers call it a “party in a pouch.”

Critics say it’s more like an alcoholic candy bar.

ShotPak is a line of alcoholic beverages that come in shot-sized, laminated-foil plastic pouches that are reminiscent of the drinks children pack in school lunches.

Purple Hooter is one of the drinks, which sell for 99 cents to $1.50 in liquor stores and for more in some nightclubs. There are also a Kamikaze, Lemon Drop, Sour Apple and a higher alcohol line of pocket-sized drinks called STR8UP of vodka, whiskey, tequila and rum—all ironically made at a distillery in Temperance, Mich., and sold throughout Southern California. The company is legally headquartered in Irvine but is run mostly from Sarasota, Fla., where its parent company is located.

ShotPak refers to its drink as “the shot . . . without the glass!” The company’s critics call it a blatant play to entice underage drinkers and to get alcohol into schools and other public venues where it wouldn’t ordinarily be drunk.

“Images of these packs stuffed in jeans pockets can give kids the wrong idea. It turns this into an alcoholic candy bar,” said George Hacker, a policy advocate with the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

Until recently, the company’s home page on the Internet showed a photo of just the middle of an attractive young woman. There was no head and not much of her legs. But there was a tight, bare belly clad in low slung bluejeans with a Purple Hooter pouch wedged into her front pocket.

In April, the company’s main website was found in violation of advertising standards for alcoholic beverages set by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a self-regulating industry trade group.

ShotPak also had a MySpace page that talked about how “these shots are perfect to take with you tailgating, at concerts, to sporting events, on vacations, on a plane or on your next camping or boat trip.”

Its list of MySpace friends include celebutante Kim Kardashian and a nearly naked woman who calls herself Jessica Rabbit. The page also contained other sexually suggestive imagery.

ShotPak made changes on both websites to comply with the standards set by the industry trade group after The Times called the Distilled Spirits Council asking about the images. “We are tidying up what might be considered controversial. We are trying to turn this into a positive product,” said R. Charles Murray, chief executive of Beverage Pouch Group, which owns the ShotPak brand.

Still, some experts said they believed the convenient format of the ShotPak could encourage abuse.

“Combining vodka with raspberry drinks . . . and calling it a party in a pouch. Who are they appealing to? This isn’t the kind of thing adults drink,” said Dr. Michael Brody of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Adults of 25 to 40 years old are the prime targets, Murray said.

Murray said the company would sell about $500,000 of the drinks this year and was marketing a convenient drink “for a social setting” such as tailgate parties at sporting events, beaches or while boating—situations where people don’t want to cart glass around.

“We think a cocktail in a pocket fulfills a real niche out there,” Murray said. At 17% alcohol, “you can have four of the cocktails, for example, and not be in trouble.”

Murray bought the company from founder Ignus Hattingh in January and moved it from Irvine to Florida.

Murray said that he didn’t believe the imagery ShotPak previously used, or its current Web pages, made it a bigger target of underage drinking and that underage and barely legal drinkers were unlikely to use ShotPaks.

“If they drink, these people are geared to beer,” because it is affordable, Murray said.

That’s not always the case. At a recent Los Angeles Dodgers game, several young adult fans were purchasing cokes, pulling out STR8UP rum pouches and mixing drinks in the stands, in violation of stadium policies.

The compactness of the packaging and the ease with which the drinks can be hidden in a pocket or a purse only add to their attractiveness to teens, said Dr. Oscar Bukstein, a psychiatrist and expert in teen addiction at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

He suspects that ShotPaks get consumed either mixed with soda or straight not only at Dodger Stadium but also at high school and college sporting events. And he said that was an issue regulators should take a closer look at.

Underage drinking is a significant problem in the U.S., according to medical experts.

In 2007, about 16% of eighth- graders, 33% of 10th-graders and 44% of high school seniors reported drinking in the last 30 days, according to a Federal Trade Commission report on underage drinking and alcohol beverage industry advertising released in June.

Hacker of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the government should be more aggressive in limiting sales of products such as ShotPaks, but that’s not likely to happen.

“We are aware of the complaints but we have limited jurisdiction on what we can do about it,” said Art Resnick, spokesman for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the federal agency that regulates alcohol.

ShotPak’s label and packaging are in compliance with federal regulations, he said. The 50-milliliter (1.7-ounce) package is an approved size for an alcoholic beverage and the package accurately describes what is inside.

The product also has caught the attention of California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown.

“Any alcohol product that has marketing characteristics that would appeal to youths is something that we are concerned about,” said Abraham Arredondo, a spokesman for the attorney general. But Arredondo declined to say whether Brown’s office has launched a probe into the product.

ShotPak is on track to at least double its sales this year from its small base, but is not burning up the liquor aisles.

The product is a slow seller at Viking Liquor on Pacific Coast Highway in Sunset Beach, said Myong Kim, the store’s owner.

Kim said not a lot of people know about the product. Those who do buy it are typically in their early 20s.

“We have some who say they take it with them when they go to bars,” Kim said, “so they don’t have to pay for more expensive drinks.”

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