The Buzz over Alcoholic Energy Drinks Some Lawmakers Pushing for Stricter Labeling Requirements on Specialized Beverages

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Byline: Amber Krosel

akrosel@@dailyherald.com

SPRINGFIELD - At first glance, it looks like a Web site with doodles straight from a teenager's notebook.

The design is reminiscent of "Napoleon Dynamite," with bright colors, lined-paper shapes and even a section about air guitars.

But it's not just another MySpace page. It's an advertising technique being used by Miller Brewing Co. for its alcoholic energy drink Sparks, which contains 6 to 7 percent alcohol, more than most beers.

Now, the product and the marketing behind it are being called into question by Illinois lawmakers.

Lawmakers are advancing proposals that would create stricter labeling requirements for such drinks, which often bear a striking resemblance to their non-alcoholic counterparts increasingly popular among youths.

"The confused consumer doesn't understand there is alcohol in these," said state Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat and one proposal's sponsor. "It's just not that evident on this can that it's alcohol."

These energy drinks are the latest alcoholic beverages to be spotlighted by lawmakers and groups concerned with youth drinking.

A law that takes effect in June will fine companies for advertising fun-flavored alcoholic beverages such as malt lemonade or alcohol-infused tea to children. Specifically, advertising will be banned from billboards within 500 feet of schools, churches and parks.

Legislators want to add the alcoholic energy drinks to that law as well.

But the nation's biggest brewers argue they're behaving responsibly with their products and marketing.

Mark Strawn, Miller Brewing Co.' s legislative consultant, defended products like Miller's Sparks against claims from lawmakers that it's marketed as non-alcoholic and designed to confuse teens.

Strawn said the products must be displayed in the beer and wine sections of stores, not with the rest of the regular energy drinks.

Anheuser-Busch also issued a statement saying its Tilt and Bud Extra alcoholic energy drinks are clearly marked with alcohol content labeling, as required by federal law.

"However, we will work with lawmakers to help ensure that consumers clearly understand these products contain alcohol," said Ashlie Keener, the region director of government affairs.

Still, a scroll across the Web quickly finds sites trying to strike a chord with hip consumers, though they do somewhere post a "drink responsibly" or "brewed to be enjoyed responsibly by adults" disclaimer and require visitors to type in birth dates.

Tilt's site greets visitors with a music club scene - a background photo of young people partying to techno music blasting from Web surfers' computer speakers. …