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When 19-year-old Jenna Bush was arrested, she was accused of possessing a “substance resembling beer,” according to undercover police officers. These “substances” or “alcopops” are the alcoholic beverages of choice for underage drinkers, according to recent studies.

Mix beer with lemonade, chocolate milk or other sweet drinks, put it in some flashy colored packages that appeal to teenagers and you have an alcopop—one of the fastest growing industries in America. Anheuser-Busch, brewer of Budweiser and 49.8 percent of the domestic beer sold in America, found success with Tequiza, its tequila-flavored beer or alcopop.

More than 5 million underage consumers will binge drink every month, and the new assortment of sweet alcoholic drinks may be one reason why.

According to their labels, these drinks have more alcohol than most beers, which carry an alcohol content of about 3.2 percent. An alcopop comes in a clear glass bottle that looks like and is promoted as lemonade. The sweet flavor masks the 5.2 percent alcohol content, making it easy for teens to consume a large quantity of alcohol quickly.

Alcopops’ aim is to lure teens who don’t like the taste of alcohol into consuming hard beverages. It seems to be working.

George Hacker, director of the alcohol policies project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said on the center’s site that these new soda pop-like, malted drinks are a big hit with high schoolers in Great Britain and Australia. He also predicted last year they would be popular in the United States.

They are better known by their flashy packages and clever names such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Rick’s Spiked Hard Lemonade, Doc Otis, Jed’s, Hooper’s Hooch, Smirnoff Ice and a host of others.

Many adults, parents and health officials are unfamiliar with the new drinks, and have not recognized the growing threat they pose to the health and safety of American teenagers, Hacker noted.

The drinks were introduced into the United States in 1999. The CSPI conducted a study in 2001 and discovered that both teenagers and adults recognize that alcopops are much more popular among underage drinkers than among adults. Teens are three times as likely to be aware of alcopops and nearly twice as likely to have tried them.

Underage drinkers are a critical segment of the alcohol beverage market. Since most heavy and problem drinkers begin drinking before they reach age 21, underage drinking is key to the alcohol industry.

Mike’s Hard Beverage Company in San Francisco was the first to introduce “Alcopops” with Mike’s Hard Lemonade in mid-1999 in three northeastern states. One year later, this mixture of beer and lemonade had sold more than 2 million cases across the nation, creating a new beverage type that will see more than $350 million this year.

“Predictably, Alcopops have captured the attention of teenagers and have helped introduce them, prematurely, into a drinking lifestyle,” said Hacker. “Such fruit-flavored malt beverages make it easier than ever for teens to begin drinking and move on to more traditional alcoholic beverages.”

Five million underage drinkers are binge drinking at least once a month, according to Teen Tipplers: America’s Underage Drinking Epidemic, a new report released in February by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA).

The 145-page report, the result of two years of research and analysis, also found that the gender gap in alcohol consumption that for generations separated girls and boys has disappeared among younger teens: male and female ninth graders are just as likely to drink (40 percent vs. 41 percent) and to binge drink (22 percent vs. 20 percent).

“Underage drinking has reached epidemic proportions in America,” said Joseph A. Califano Jr., CASA president and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. “By any assessment, alcohol—not marijuana, not cocaine, not heroin, not ecstasy or LSD—is the leading drug problem among young people in America. It is also the leading drug killer.

The CASA report noted that teens have easy access to alcohol. Parents often see underage drinking and occasional bingeing as a rite of passage through adolescence. One-third of sixth and ninth graders obtain alcohol from their own homes, and children cite other people’s homes as the most common setting for drinking.

In addition, the CSPI study found that 90 percent of teens agreed that drinking the newer, sweeter drinks can make it more likely that teenagers will try other alcoholic beverages.

Forty-one percent of teens 14 to 18 have tried an alcopop, and twice as many 14- to 16-year-olds preferred them over beer or mixed drinks.
More than half of all teens pointed to attributes of the products—their sweet taste, the disguised taste of alcohol, and their easy-to-drink character—as major reasons teenagers chose alcopops over beer, wine or cocktails.

Ray Furr is a Baptist minister and freelance writer in Poquoson, Va.

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