When Scottsdale hairstylist Eric Leal stopped by a Circle K store for coffee Monday, he was asked for his impression of two energy drinks that had been placed on the counter.
Leal gave the 16-ounce cans of Tilt and Sparks Plus a quick glance. Both drinks were packaged in silver, orange and black cans.
Leal said he’s tried energy drinks, but he doesn’t usually drink them because they make him jittery. He was asked if he’s tried premixed alcoholic energy drinks.
“Those are alcoholic?” he asked.
In fact, they are.
Tilt is an Anheuser-Busch malt beverage that’s 6.6 percent alcohol. That’s stiffer than most beer sold in the United States. Tilt also contains the real or supposed stimulants caffeine, ginseng and guarana extract.
Sparks Plus is a Miller Brewing malt beverage that’s 7 percent alcohol. It also features several additives, including a caffeine/citric acid blend, taurine and a guarana/ginseng blend, which typically are found in nonalcoholic energy drinks.
Other brands of the sweet and intoxicating drinks are appearing on the market, as well.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and 29 other state attorneys general on Monday asked the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to investigate promotional claims associated with the new category of alcoholic energy drinks.
Some advertising implies that the additives will enable consumers to drink more without becoming impaired or intoxicated, he said.
And because nonalcoholic drinks are popular with teenagers, alcoholic beverage manufacturers may be capitalizing on the appeal of nonalcoholic drinks to sell the new varieties of alcoholic energy drinks, he said.
“I don’t think there’s anything worse than getting a teenager turned on to alcohol,” Goddard said. “One of the things that we as AGs have done, and this letter is part of it, is to try to thwart any kind of marketing that appears to be targeted to teenagers.”
Red Bull was the first energy drink to enter the U.S. market on a wide-scale basis in 1997. Since then, more than 150 brands have followed, according to industry watchers. Among the brands available in the East Valley: Monster, Rock Star, Full Throttle, Amp, Joker, Talon and Kronik.
Alcoholic energy drinks entered the market more recently than their alcohol-free counterparts. Customers must be at least the minimum drinking age of 21 to purchase them.
Interestingly, the nonalcoholic energy drinks sell at convenience stores for about $1.99 to $2.49 for a 16-ounce can. The alcoholic energy drinks sell for about $1.59.
Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control Director Jerry Oliver met with industry leaders and solicited a pledge from them to work with state officials about marketing the alcoholic drinks, he said. Beverage industry executives could not be reached for comment.
“I’m especially disturbed about the similarity in packaging of the alcoholic products, compared to the nonalcoholic products and their close placement in stores,” Oliver said.
That type of concern makes sense, because the alcoholic and nonalcoholic energy drinks look so similar, Leal said. “I see how you can get confused,” he said.
Labeling on a selection of alcoholic energy drinks for sale in the East Valley on Monday noted the brews’ alcohol content and the U.S. surgeon general’s warning about the dangers of drinking.
However, Goddard is aware of consumers and retailers alike who have been confused, though his office currently is not prosecuting any cases involving such incidents, he said.
Arizona State University student Erin Barrett, 20, said a combination Red Bull and vodka has been a popular bar drink among the college crowd for years, and preblended alcoholic energy drinks are the latest buzz.
“People just like it because it gives you the effects of the energy drink, plus the effects of the alcohol intertwined. I think people enjoy the feeling they get from that,” said the political science junior.
The result are “wide-eyed drunks,” Goddard said. “They are more likely to get in a car and drive, because they feel perfectly confident to drive. They’re not. They’re just as drunk as somebody who was just drinking beer or just drinking mixed-drinks.”