Officers learn dangers of 'alcopops' for youth

AIKEN --- Dale Usry of the Burnettown Police Department examined the assortment of cans and bottles lining the table, noting similarities on the labels of the alcohol energy drinks and the non-alcohol versions.

"I'm just learning these myself," she said as she picked up a tall silver can of Tilt, an energy drink that contains 6 percent alcohol. "I've been around awhile, but I haven't been around this."

Officer Usry was one of more than a dozen police officers from Georgia and South Carolina participating in a two-day Alcohol Enforcement Team Training focused on underage drinking.

Kevin Grindstaff of the South Carolina Alcohol Enforcement Team conducted a training session Wednesday afternoon at the University of South Carolina Aiken on alcoholic beverages and trends among teenagers.

"We want to make law enforcement aware of what's out there," he said.

Nowadays there's more to tempt teens than just cheap wine, peach schnapps and beer.

In the past few years, new types of alcoholic drinks that target youths have sprung up.

Termed alcopops by law enforcement, they are sweet and fruity malt beverages with catchy names, packaged in eye-catching bottles or cans and wrapped with labels that make them indistinguishable from their non-alcoholic counterparts.

Alcopops have a beer classification, contain less than 10 ounces of alcohol, and, because of the low alcohol content, can be sold in convenience stores. They bear names such as Mike's Hard Lemonade, Rockstar 21, Joose and Sparkle.

Mr. Grindstaff said there's an easy way to tell the difference between energy drinks that contain alcohol and those that don't.

Non-alcoholic energy drinks list nutrition facts and ingredients on the container. The others don't.

Alcohol Enforcement Teams train convenience store clerks and owners on how to recognize these products and how to sell them, suggesting, for example, that alcopops be placed with other alcohol drinks.

"They're liable, both criminal and civil, if they sell to someone under 21," Mr. Grindstaff said.

This past year, Alcohol Enforcement Team compliance checks conducted across the state "showed that underage youth statewide were able to purchase alcopops or alcoholic energy drinks 226 times out of 1,198 attempts, or 18.9 percent," according to information provided by the state Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services in Columbia.

Reach Michelle Guffey at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or michelle.guffey@augustachronicle.com.