MillerCoors to reformulate Sparks drink

December 18, 2008 1:27:41 PM PST
New York is among more than a dozen states included in a settlement with MillerCoors that will result in the company reformulating its Sparks energy drink to remove caffeine and three other ingredients from the product. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and his counterparts in 12 states had complained that caffeine and other stimulants in the beverage would reduce drinkers' sense of intoxication and increase risky behaviors in driving and other activities.

The Milwaukee-based company says it will remove caffeine, taurine, guarana and ginseng from Sparks and will not produce caffeinated alcohol beverages. MillerCoors will pay $550,000 to 13 states and the city of San Francisco to cover the cost of their investigation.

St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch said in June it would reformulate its Tilt and Bud Extra drinks to remove the stimulants as part of a settlement with 11 attorneys general.

"Sparks is an insidious and insane drink that deservedly now is down the drain - like all stimulant-spiked alcoholic drinks should be," Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said. "Beverages like Sparks are a witch's brew of alcohol and caffeine, energizing drunks and encouraging dangerous, even deadly behavior."

Added New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, "They are fundamentally dangerous and put drinkers of all ages at risk. Today's agreement will ensure that from here on out, these drinks are kept off New York shelves and away from New York consumers."

The MillerCoors settlement also includes the attorneys general of Arizona, California, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio and Oklahoma and the city attorney of San Francisco.

The money will be split between the states and San Francisco, MillerCoors spokesman Julian Green said.

Groups say these drinks target young drinkers, even those underage, because those consumers are already drawn to highly caffeinated drinks like Red Bull.

As part of the agreement, MillerCoors will sell through its remaining Sparks products and stop making them by Jan. 10.

Green said the company will then start brewing the new formula after that.

The company must also eliminate all references in advertising to caffeinated formulations and not promote Sparks as a mixer for caffeinated drinks. It will remove the plus and minus symbols - which evoke a battery - found on the blue and orange cans for the product. The company also agrees not to use batteries, rockets, lightning bolts, or the terms "powered by" or "ignite" in marketing the new formulation.

The company also took down the Web site for the brand, as part of the agreement, which said MillerCoors may launch new Web content for Sparks to promote only the reformulated version.

Green said the company will continue to expand the brand.

SABMiller bought Sparks and Steel Reserve, a slow-brewed lager, from McKenzie River Corp. for $215 million cash in 2006.

He noted that advertising for the brand was minimal, compared with the company's other brands like Miller Lite, and said there had never been any television ads for Sparks.

"We remain committed to the Sparks franchise, including the possibility of line extensions," Green said.

Steve Gardner, litigation director for public advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest - which has a suit against MillerCoors over Sparks - applauded the agreement. In September the group filed a suit against MillerCoors to stop the brewer from selling Sparks, saying it's going after teenagers with the drink.

"It's a devil's brew of a product because it combines caffeine with alcohol," Gardner said.

He said much of what the group wanted from MillerCoors - to remove caffeine, guarana, ginseng and taurine from the product - was accomplished in the agreement. He said he was not yet sure what the agreement means for the case, which was pending in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

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