So-called "alcopops" taste like fruit juice but can contain as much booze, or more, than some beers. Girls, in particular, love the sweet malt punch.
"One of the big trends we are seeing is with alcopops. We've had clients who don't even realize they are alcohol," said Tiffanie Ferguson, an adolescent program coordinator at Akron, Ohio's Community Health Center.
So popular are the sweet drinks that Ferguson and colleague Rebecca Mason, director of outpatient services, believe they are causing more underage girls to abuse alcohol.
"It's totally a marketing ploy," Mason said.
According to the state Department of Youth and Human Services, one-third of teenage girls have tried alcopops, such as the various Smirnoff and Mike's Hard flavors.
"I had a client give (a sip of) Smirnoff to their toddler thinking it was just juice," Ferguson said.
And then there's the dangerously sweet combination in cans that look like energy drinks but contain booze, or both caffeine and liquor.
Intentionally or by accident, a child could grab an alcoholic beverage that looks like an energy drink, and hand it to Mom to pay for at the register. Without taking a closer look at the label, Mom may think it's just another brand of nonalcoholic energy beverage.
Sparks Red contains 8 percent alcohol but no caffeine; Joose has both caffeine and 9.9 percent liquor; Four Loko has caffeine and 12 percent liquor, all substantially more than most beers.
Because alcohol is a depressant and caffeine is a stimulant, a mix of substances can confuse the nervous system. Rather than feeling tired after drinking booze, the caffeine causes a high, masking the feeling of intoxication. The result? Wired, wide-awake drunks.
In November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent 27 letters to manufacturers and distributors of caffeinated alcoholic drinks, challenging them to scientifically prove that the drinks are safe. So far, the FDA has received 19 answers and is reviewing the information.
A year or so ago, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors agreed - after complaints from some attorneys general, including Ohio's Richard Cordray - to reformulate their popular drinks. FDA spokesman Michael Herndon explained that the companies removed the added caffeine from Tilt, Bud Extra and Sparks, agreeing not to produce any caffeinated alcoholic beverages in the future.
Getting booze is easy
A lot of alcohol abuse by girls goes undetected. That's because society tends to place lighter consequences on them when compared to boys, Mason said. And girls are more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior or be victimized while drunk.
"I agree that girls would go for the non-alcohol tasting beverages," said Meghan Caprez, a 16-year-old from Akron who's a member of the Beacon Journal's young readers group."It's all about fitting in nowadays. I feel lucky that I have a group of friends that aren't interested in that stuff, but I've seen kids my age drink. It's really sad that they feel that they must do this to fit in."
Despite laws that prohibit anyone under 21 in Ohio from buying or consuming alcohol, kids report it's still easy to get. If it's not from a parent's liquor cabinet, perhaps it's at a relative's or friend's home. But there's another way.