Caffeinated alcoholic beverage ban: A lost health CSR opportunity

cab_iageThe Food and Drug Administration  (FDA) has weighed in on the health merits of caffeinated alcoholic beverages, declaring that caffeine added to malt beverages constitutes an “unsafe food additive.” That essentially makes it illegal to manufacture the beverages which currently bear vivid, youth-inspired names like Four Loko, Joose, and Max.

After several well publicized mass-poisonings on college campuses, these beverages have received lots of attention. By combining, for example, the alcohol content of five cans of beer and the caffeine kick of a cup of coffee masked behind fruity-fizzy flavoring in a single can, these beverages seem purpose-built to prevent responsible consumption. The caffeine and sweet help to mask the flavor and effects of the alcohol, while the alcohol masks the potential jitter-inducing effects of caffeine and sugar.

Was government prohibition the right approach? Possibly not. There are other examples where government regulation hasn’t proven as effective as we’d like in mitigating health risks, and where, counter-intuitively, enlightened action by industry could bring both health and business benefit to all parties. For example, plastics manufacturers can gain market share by removing the additive BPA from plastics, instead of waiting for the heavy hand of regulation to sweep it from the market. Regulators frequently hide behind meek "evidence is inconclusive" pronouncements even when common sense suggests that action is sensible. In an upcoming post we’ll look at the interesting regulation-versus-industry-communications case of so-called “fracking-fluids” used in natural gas extraction. They are linked to drinking water contamination, but also appear necessary to extract (relatively) clean burning natural gas. So far neither industry nor regulators is doing a stellar job addressing public concern.

Back to the health of caffeinated alcoholic beverages. What the FDA appears to have banned is the addition of caffeine to alcoholic malt beverages. The simple route around this prohibition is to add ingredients that contain caffeine or other stimulants, such as green tea, guarana or taurine. This gets you the same effects, with the same health risks, without technically adding caffeine. Similarly warning letters from the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) warns of health risks associated with the consumption of “alcohol containing adding caffeine.” No doubt the malt beverage industry, annoyed by government meddling, will head down this road. Needless to say, consumers still have the option of mixing their own beverages, though doing this likely gives them control of how much kick they are mixing into their brew.

What the beverage industry missed here was a great CSR (corporate social responsibility) opportunity. They could have followed the lead of other responsible food companies such as the Campbell Soup Company who value the power of social media and responsible business practice. By voluntarily removing the caffeine from their beverages, manufacturers could have taken actions to shed a rare glimpse of social responsibility on their industry, without necessarily loosing much in terms of sales.  Let’s be honest, keep the sugary flavoring and potent alcoholic punch and your customers will keep lining up. They could have harnessed the media spot-light to bring positive attention, looked progressive and authentic by admitting that they could improve their products by reducing the possible health risks. They could have spread the word using social media outlets. Instead they missed a massive marketing opportunity. Any actions they now take will merely seem reactionary or evasive, a way of dodging the new FDA rules.

Are you tired of seeing health safety action inevitable stem from the ponderous, frequently over-reaching regulatory sector? Wouldn’t you rather see industry take decisive, socially responsible actions, even when they are in its own best interest?

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