“It’s inappropriate:” New alcoholic Pop Shoppe drinks raise concerns about youth appeal


New alcoholic Pop Shoppe beverages are sweetening shelves this summer, but some experts on alcohol policy are worried that the drink could be particularly attractive to youth.

The Pop Shoppe, a Canadian brand that sells retro-style soda in glass bottles, launched a “Hard Cream Soda” and a “Lime Ricky Hard Soda” this spring, with a seven per cent alcohol content.

The sweet, vodka-based drinks come in brightly coloured tall cans featuring the classic Pop Shoppe logo.

It isn’t the first brand to have a spinoff alcoholic beverage — Snapple has a “spiked” iced tea, for example, and Hires Root Beer makes a vodka beverage.

Ashley Wettlaufer, research co-ordinator at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said the Pop Shoppe drinks have a “very concerning” potential to appeal to youth.

She pointed to the colourful, cartoon-like label, sugary taste and familiar “Pop Shoppe” logo — a soda brand many adolescents may already know and drink.

Norman Giesbrecht, a CAMH scientist who specializes in alcohol policy, said he also imagines a scenario where a child might mistake the hard soda for regular pop.

“It’s inappropriate and risky marketing,” he said. “I’m just baffled why this product was approved.”

Spokespeople for Pop Shoppe say that their hard soda is not targeted at youth — their nostalgic, retro-themed marketing is actually aimed at people older than 40.

Most of their customers are people with fond memories of going to Pop Shoppe stores as a kid in the ’70s, said Stefan Kergl, vice-president at Beverage World Inc., which owns the Pop Shoppe brand.

That nostalgic focus would make the drinks less appealing to young people, said Mathieu Gagnon-Oosterwaal, co-founder of Blue Spike Beverages, which manufactures the alcoholic beverage.

“The best way to make a product unappealing to a younger crowd is to advertise it to their parents,” he said, adding that he has not heard any concerns about the product.

The labelling on the cans makes it “pretty obvious” they contain alcohol, he said. The cans say “hard soda,” “7 per cent” and have “Alcoholic vodka beverage” in small lettering at the bottom. The hard soda also comes in cans, while the regular soda is sold in bottles, said Gagnon-Oosterwaal.

Guidelines from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario say alcohol can’t be packaged or advertised in a way that appeals “either directly or indirectly” to minors. An LCBO spokesperson said the hard soda adheres to these guidelines, as well as to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s labelling requirements and the LCBO’s internal standards.

Giesbrecht, however, said the Pop Shoppe packaging goes against the “spirit” of not marketing to youth.

“The artwork to me seems very youthful-oriented,” said Giesbrecht, who believes alcohol packaging should include warning labels. “I think it’s a mixed message, frankly.”

In an email, an AGCO spokesperson said alcohol packaging and advertising doesn’t need to get prior approval from the commission.

“However, if the AGCO were to receive a complaint from a member of the public … AGCO would investigate,” he said, adding that they have received no complaints about Pop Shoppe beverages.

These kinds of sweet, pre-mixed drinks are sometimes called “alcopops,” said Ann Dowsett Johnston, author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol. These innocuous-seeming drinks are particularly enticing to adolescents and women, she said.

“It’s an entry drink,” she said. “It looks like pop. It doesn’t act like pop.”

With so much focus on regulating tobacco and legalizing marijuana, Wettlaufer said provincial governments should also look at strengthening alcohol guidelines.

Ottawa has banned menthol cigarettes, which they say could appeal to young people, and is trying to implement plain packaging on tobacco products. The federal task force on marijuana legalization has also recommended plain packaging on cannabis.

With alcohol, however, the trend seems to be toward increased marketing and accessibility, said Giesbrecht, noting that beer and wine are now available in Ontario grocery stores.

by Laura Howells

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