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Akron Univ. School of Law

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Consumer Group Sues Miller Over New Drink

The Wall Street Journal reports that a consumer-advocacy group sued MillerCoors over their new Sparks drink, claiming that Sparks contains unapproved ingredients and might pose health and safety risks for consumers.  David Kesmodel writes,

SparksA consumer-advocacy group sued MillerCoors LLC in an effort to have the company's Sparks beverage removed from the Washington, D.C., market in the latest campaign against the caffeinated alcoholic beverage.

The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest sued the second-largest U.S. beer maker in District of Columbia Superior Court, contending that Sparks contains unapproved ingredients and poses health and safety risks for consumers.

MillerCoors, a joint venture of SABMiller PLC and Molson Coors Brewing Co., declined to comment on the suit. But spokesman Julian Green said "it is important to note" that the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau had approved all formulas and labels for Sparks, Sparks Light and other versions of the drink. "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," he said in a prepared statement.

The suit came amid probes of Sparks's marketing by various state attorneys general, who are concerned about the drink's appeal to minors. In June, MillerCoors's main rival, No. 1 beer maker Anheuser-Busch Cos., agreed to stop selling similar products in a settlement with 11 state attorneys general.

But MillerCoors seems to be taking a firm stance against moves by regulators and consumer groups to curtail Sparks. The brewer has more at stake with Sparks than Anheuser-Busch did with its Tilt and Bud Extra drinks, which Anheuser pledged to reformulate. Sparks is the No. 1 selling drink in the caffeinated alcoholic-beverage category, with 60% market share, and SABMiller paid $215 million to acquire the brand and other products from McKenzie River Corp. in 2006.

In its suit, the center says U.S. alcohol regulators are only supposed to permit the use of ingredients that the Federal Drug Administration has "affirmatively" determined to be "generally recognized as safe."

The center contends four of the food additives in Sparks -- caffeine, guarana, taurine and ginseng -- haven't met that threshold for use in alcoholic drinks. A spokesman for the Tax and Trade Bureau declined to comment, but referred to a letter it sent to state attorneys general in April that said "any manufacturer can self-certify that an ingredient is 'generally recognized as safe'" under federal guidelines.

The center's lawsuit accuses MillerCoors of irresponsibly marketing Sparks to young consumers. "Mix alcohol and stimulants with a young person's sense of invincibility and you have a recipe for disaster," said George A. Hacker, director of the center's alcohol-policies project.

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