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'Bad buzz' drinks to come off the shelf

Faced with a multistate investigation and the threat of a lawsuit, Anheuser-Busch agreed to stop making caffeinated alcoholic drinks on Thursday.

But industry watchdogs say they will have to do more to prevent minors from abusing the products.

The St. Louis-based company ended production of Tilt and Bud Extra until they can be re-formulated without caffeine or other stimulants. Eleven state attorneys general and the Center for Science in the Public Interest had argued that Busch was targeting new drinkers with the products, which they say are designed to encourage overconsumption.

The St. Petersburg Times chronicled the controversy in a front-page article on Saturday.

"It's just crazy to mix stimulants and alcohol," said George A. Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "I think that Anheuser-Busch's action (Thursday) recognizes that, and we hope it puts more pressure on other producers to make a similar decision."

In February, attorneys general demanded marketing documents from the company. The investigation found that Busch advertised the products to consumers under the legal drinking age, according to a statement by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. The documents also revealed that the company wrongly suggested the caffeine in the drinks could counteract the influence of alcohol, according to Cuomo's statement.

Busch has denied that the products were inappropriately marketed. In a statement released Thursday, it did not address the charges.

"Although Bud Extra and Tilt met all regulatory requirements, had much less caffeine than a Starbuck's coffee, and had received all necessary federal and state agency approvals, we are reformulating these products in response to the AG's concerns," said Francine Katz, Anheuser-Busch's vice president of communications.

But some observers see more work to do. Miller makes a similar product called Sparks that's still on the market. And some say the drinks can still be dangerous without the stimultants.

In April, the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation conducted an investigation that found many stores sold alcoholic energy drinks to teenage operatives.

Critics of the drinks have argued that the packaging is designed to fool clerks into thinking the products are non-alcoholic.

"Anheuser-Busch's decision to stop selling the caffeinated alcoholic drinks will increase awareness," said Jenn Meale, spokeswoman for the state agency.

Hacker, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he will continue to monitor the products. In its agreement, the group didn't guarantee it wouldn't challenge the reformulated drinks in the future.

Don Murray, executive director of the Florida chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said he hopes the change means the company can't market the products as energy drinks and confuse retailers. But he wondered if the company would stop targeting underage drinkers with the beverages' packaging and advertising.

"The combination of alcohol and caffeine was just one aspect to what we saw was a much broader problem," Murray said. "I'm not really sure that that's much of an impact."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

'Bad buzz' drinks to come off the shelf 06/26/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 26, 2008 10:39pm]
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