Last month, the Federal Trade Commission took public comments on a proposed settlement with the alcohol company Phusion Projects, which makes a beverage line called Four Loko. You might recall in 2010 how that product gained much notoriety for sending scores of college students to the emergency room as a result of its dangerous combination of alcohol with caffeine. In a rare victory of government action in favor of public safety, in November 2010, the Food and Drug Administration forced Phusion and other companies to remove the caffeine. (Read my case study here.) But of course, the story doesn't end there, as these companies always have another trick up their sleeve to get youth hooked.
Now, the "caffeine-free" versions of these highly sweet, soda-like concoctions known as alcopops have grown to high-octane super-size cans, containing as much as 4-5 servings of alcohol, and all for the price of a cheap beer. Public health advocates, policymakers, and state attorneys general have been trying to bring these products down to size through a variety of legal measures. Now comes the Federal Trade Commission with its proposed agreement with Phusion Projects, not to actually reduce the container size or amount of alcohol. But rather, to require better labeling, which will serve as a great advertisement.
That's why I asked colleagues and groups to sign on my letter in opposition to the proposal. Numerous others submitted similar comments raising many objections, including the American Medical Association, the New York City health department, and Public Health Law and Policy. Most importantly, a strong group of state attorneys general who have been working on this issue for years raised five pages worth of objections in their impressive letter. (It was thanks to these state officials that FDA acted on the caffeine.)
In addition, several industry members took the side of public health, and not just for the usual self-serving reasons. For several years, I called upon beer wholesalers to speak out against dangerous products such as caffeinated alcoholic beverages. While several business owners expressed to me privately that they hated these youth-oriented beverages, (and the bad publicity that accompanies them) none took a public stand against them. I am therefore happy to report that the National Beer Wholesalers Association, a powerful lobbying group, wrote a pretty strong letter to oppose the agreement. From their comments:
The label contemplated by the proposed settlement could actually serve to entice consumers, especially younger ones seeking high-alcohol, low-priced products, to possibly over consume these products.
This important point made by myself and others is not the sort of rhetoric we are used to hearing from the likes of beer lobbyists. In addition to this large trade group being on the right side of the issue, several individual beer distributors also opposed the settlement. For example, John Dickerson, a distributor based in Ohio signed on to my letter. Also, Robert Archer, president of Blue Ridge Beverage, wrote his own very strong letter, saying that "the issues surrounding large containers and high alcohol content are not effectively addressed simply by putting a 'message' on the container." His comments are especially significant because Archer is next in line to become chair of the National Beer Wholesalers Association.
As someone whose work is centered around criticizing industry for its misdeeds and disingenuous pro-health positions, it's rare for me to give praise. But this show of support for public health from beer wholesalers and their lobbyists is genuine, and should be applauded as a true sign of progress.
Let's hope the Federal Trade Commission hears our collective concerns and either proposes a more effective solution or allows states to assert their legal authority to do a better job.