MillerCoors agrees to reformulate Sparks

Alcoholic energy could be in their death knell. Responding to pressure from a coalition of state attorneys general, MillerCoors agreed Thursday to remove from the market Sparks, the company’s category-leading energy-alcohol brew – at least in its current form.

The announcement follows the discontinuation in June of caffeinated versions of Anheuser-Busch’s Tilt and Bud Extra lines. Bud Extra, Tilt and Sparks accounted for 85 percent of the alcoholic energy drink market, according Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler, who said he expected smaller companies making this kind of “unsafe product” to follow suit.

“This took real chutzpah to [sell these products] in the first place,” Gansler said.

Neither company admitted to any wrongdoing by marketing the caffeinated beverages. MillerCoors, in a written statement, pointed out that Sparks’ formulation had been approved multiple times by federal regulators.

While their case focused in part on dangers involved with mixing stimulants with alcohol, the attorneys general said they also attacked the drinks because the brands’ marketing techniques targeted consumers younger than 21. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal pointed to MIllerCoors’ promotions tied to skateboards, snowboards and music downloads as examples of advertising that appealed to young consumers.

“The marketing by MillerCoors was really some of the most disturbing that we’ve seen in this area,” Blumenthal said.

Tom Long, President and Chief Commercial Officer of MillerCoors, countered in a written statement that the brand had always been marketed responsibly.

But the drinks’ packaging had also raised public scrutiny. Kentucky state regulators told the Lexington Herald Leader in May 2007 that the drinks had been mistakenly sold as non-alcoholic energy drinks to underage consumers.

Despite the agreements, Sparks, Bud Extra and Tilt will not be leaving the market permanently. Each has or will return as a non-caffeinated malternative. Anheuser-Busch lists Tilt and Bud Extra on its web site as fruit-flavored alcoholic beverages, and MillerCoors announced plans to reformulate the product sans-caffeine. The company also recently told its distributors to replace orders of the now-discontinued Zima with Sparks products.