September 8th, 2008

CSPI Now Has MillerCoors in Its Sights

By Jeremy Mullman and Ira Teinowitz
Advertising Age

The activist group that teamed with state attorneys general to persuade Anheuser-Busch to stop selling alcoholic energy drinks in June is now suing MillerCoors over the same issue.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is seeking to block the sale of Sparks, one of MillerCoors’ fastest-growing brands, because it says the brand poses health risks, uses unapproved additives and employs marketing that appeals to underage drinkers.

‘Trying to hook teens’
“MillerCoors is trying to hook teens and tweens on a dangerous drink,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. “This company’s behavior is reckless, predatory and, in the final analysis, likely to disgust a judge or a jury.” The suit was filed in Washington Superior Court.

In a statement, MillerCoors declined to comment on the litigation, but noted that Sparks’ recipe and labeling had been approved by the appropriate government authorities. “We do not comment on current litigation, but it is important to note that the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has approved all product formulations and labels for Sparks, Sparks Light, Sparks Plus and Sparks Red. We have and we will continue to ensure that the labeling, marketing and product formulations of all our brands meet all applicable federal regulations and that our brands are marketed responsibly to legal drinking age adults.”

Miller Brewing Co. in 2006 paid $215 million for the rights to Sparks and Steel Reserve, a high-alcohol lager that is not an energy drink, and both brands have grown quickly since. (Ad Age noted Sparks’ growth when it named the brand to its 2007 Marketing 50 list.)

Will use familiar strategy
In an interview, CSPI’s Mr. Gardner said the group is using the same strategy as it did earlier with KFC and Burger King, where is sued those parties in an attempt to get them to eliminate trans fats from their menus. KFC eliminated trans fats, and CSPI dropped its suit. Burger King has resisted, and a legal challenge remains.

“If Miller were to reformulate the products to get rid of caffeine and the other unapproved additives, that too will resolve the suit,” said Mr. Gardner. “Labeling changes would not do the trick.”

In June, A-B ceased to market caffeinated alcoholic beverages, although it maintained that the beverages were legal and never marketed to underage drinkers. A-B’s entries in that category—Bud Extra and Tilt—lagged well behind Sparks in sales.


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