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Sparks Fly 

This Wednesday would've been such a happy, blessed day. The forecast was for sun, it's the quietest day in our weekly editorial cycle and MillerCoors was set to release the latest incarnation of Sparks, our favorite fluorescent orange, alcoholic energy drink -- this one featuring not just taurine and guarana but also 8 percent alcohol. We cleared all our appointments for the day.

But our hump-day orgy of uppers and downers wasn't meant to be. Late last month, MillerCoors announced it was suspending the launch of this newest, most potent form of Sparks at the urging of 25 state attorneys general (including those from Washington and Idaho), who argue that the drinks are dangerous and that their youth-oriented marketing is irresponsible. (None chose to weigh in on the delectable flavor.)

It's the latest in a series of assaults on hard-to-categorize alcoholic beverages that aren't exactly beer, wine or distilled alcohol. Often dubbed "malternatives" or "alcopops," they include caffeine-fueled drinks like Sparks, Tilt and Joose as well as less amped-up beverages like Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi O. The latter have been under the gun in Oregon since 2003, when the state Legislature ordered liquor licensees to remove from their shelves any malt beverages containing more than 0.5 percent of distilled spirits. In California this fall, flavored malt beverages will be taxed like distilled spirits, not beer, because of new legislation there. Australia is currently debating a hefty tax on the drinks, too.

But the caffeinated variety of these drinks has received special ire from state governments. Last year, 30 states, including Washington, Idaho and Oregon (plus Guam and the District of Columbia) signed a letter to the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) urging further scrutiny for the beverages. "We believe that alcoholic energy drinks constitute a serious health and safety risk for America's youth," they wrote, citing "aggressive marketing campaigns" and warning that "additives [like caffeine and guarana] tend to reduce the perception of intoxication and make greater quantities of alcohol palatable."

In June, Anheuser-Busch announced that it would stop making alcoholic drinks with caffeine after a legal settlement with 11 states, including Idaho. In September, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a suit against MillerCoors to stop the roll-out of Sparks Red, citing a Wake Forest University study that claimed students who drank alcohol mixed with energy drinks were at "increased risk for alcohol-related consequences," including injury, car crashes and sexual assault.

Julian Green, head of media relations for MillerCoors, insists the company's decision to suspend launch of Sparks Red was made in good faith. "As a responsible company that's willing to listen, we look forward to a constructive dialogue with the attorneys general on the issue to hear about their concerns," he says.

Not that he's unaware of their concerns, though. While Green declined to comment on the pressure from state governments or speculate on their motives, he maintained that the company "does not target, market or sell to kids" and said that scientific studies purporting a link between caffeinated booze and reckless behavior are "limited."

"It's important to note that Jack Daniels and Coke have been consumed in sequence or combination for decades," he says. "I think it's also important to note that there are several caffeinated alcoholic beverages and craft beers on the marketplace today with a higher alcohol content than Sparks."

Reaction at local markets was mixed. Jeremy Smith, store manager at the 7-11 on Grand Boulevard, says Sparks was a popular item but that "if it's actually not a safe drink, then probably it's a good idea" to get rid of it. South Hill Zip Trip manager Don Nelson says Sparks doesn't sell well at his store and notes that caffeinated alcoholic drinks are kept apart from energy drinks and that when checkers scan any alcohol or tobacco item, they're prompted to enter the customer's date of birth.

Alex Bender, managing editor for the Gonzaga Bulletin, says he can't disagree with the argument of the attorneys general, but he questions their motives. "Is it just an easy target they can get some press out of, or are they really concerned?" he asks.

Bender doesn't believe the action will have much effect on campus anyway. "I've seen people drink [Sparks] before, but I don't think it's popular. I would think of it more as a joke," he says. "I think that energy drink and vodka is a popular drink still. People at Gonzaga drink beer more than anything else."

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