KIDS AND COMMUNITY

The dangers of ‘kid-friendly’ drinks

By: Judy Shepps Battle
   Say the word Jell-O and just about everyone knows what you mean. Celebrity endorsements of Jell-O brand gelatin — from Bill Cosby’s pudding commercials to Alvin and the Chipmunks singing "Jell-O, Jell-O, time for fun" — have cemented this product in our collective consciousness. Moms trust Jell-O and offer it to their kids as a treat when they are ill. Women’s magazines present countless ways to "dress up" plain old gelatin and serve it as an inexpensive yet glamorous dessert.
   On the other hand, Jell-O shots (gelatin mixed with half water and half alcohol) have become a staple at teen and young adult parties because they are easy to prepare, colorful, and disguise the taste of alcohol.
   As one teen noted on an Internet message board: "Jell-O shots are the best…not only because you get drunk very quickly but because they turn your tongue different colors…yummy."
Inevitable
   It was inevitable that the youth population would discover this new use for Jell-O. In 1998, Ohio residents Brian Pearson and Nick Costanza trademarked the name Zipper for their 12-percent alcohol, 24-proof adult gelatin desert, the alcohol content of which classified it as a mixed beverage.
   Now, three years later, Zippers are sold in 20 states with an additional nine states scheduled to soon enter this market. Current flavors include such selections as Vodka Splash, Rum Rush, Whisky Drop and Tequila Tease, with new flavors being developed for production in the near future. "Playboy" magazine included Zippers in a summer feature titled "Playboy on the Scene," giving the brand national attention.

An American Success Story?

   Sales reported last December averaged $200,000 for the month. As markets expand and marketing efforts increase, including covert co-branding with Playboy, the sky is the limit for this product.
   It is easy to look at the meteoric success of the Zipper product as a business "success story." Two smart men recognized a commercial need and filled it. Many pre-packaged gelatin shot competitors will emerge, but Zippers will always be known as the first.
   But marketing and selling alcoholic beverages in a way that appeals to an underage audience crosses the line between business acumen and simple morality. And packaging a product so that it looks like a children’s lunchbox snack is downright irresponsible.
Marketing to Youth

   Zippers are unabashedly marketed with a sexual overtone. One radio and print ad asks "Have you got your tongue caught in a Zipper lately?" Another starts " ‘Twas the night before Christmas and Santa was getting hot, and there comes Debbie with a Zippers Gelatin Shot."
Packaged as Snack-Pack Look-A likes

   Zippers come packed 48 to a case in small, clear souffle cups. Suggested retail price is $6.99 for an 8-pack that is a sampler of all four flavors. The containers are peel-back and see-through, just like their non-alcoholic gelatin dessert peers. The gaudy, "fun theme" packaging contributes to the look-alike feel of these products.
   The Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) has put out an Action Alert about Zippers. Their rightful concern is that if Zippers are not properly labeled and coded as alcohol products, underage youth may be able to buy them.
   CADCA is also concerned that Zippers may be extremely enticing to young drinkers who do not like the taste of beer or hard liquor because the flavored Jell-O masks the taste of alcohol so that it tastes more like Kool-Aid.
Facing the Paradox

   I do not mean to imply that Zippers or Jell-O shots are the problem. They are only a symptom of the ambivalent attitude our society has toward the health of its youth.
   We know that alcohol consumption is not good for the developing brain or psyche of minors. Judgments with regard to driving, sex and other activities are impaired. Impulse control is lessened and anger may explode to homicide or become internalized as suicide.
   We know that more than 40 percent of individuals who start drinking before the age of 13 will develop alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence at some point in their lives. Yet four out of every 10 ninth-graders report they have consumed alcohol before they were age 13.
   Still, we allow entrepreneurs to make mega-bucks marketing their sweet, fruity alcohol drinks, from alcopops (malt-based alcoholic beverages resembling lemonade, fruit punch or soda) to Zippers.
   We spend billions of dollars in prevention efforts to teach our children to "Just Say No" to drugs and alcohol, and to educate them about the dangers of underage drinking. And we have passed numerous laws regarding possession and consumption of these products.
   Yet we stand by impotently and allow the alcohol industry to create increasingly effective strategies to lure our youth from their resolve. It is this "come-close, go-away" that produces confused and angry young people who rightfully call adults on this hypocrisy.
An Action Plan

   It is important that community members meet to develop strategies that will clearly label these alcoholic products as intended for adults only, and legislate severe punishments for those who knowingly sell these products to underage consumers.
   Media campaigns need to be initiated that indicate that these enticingly packaged products are dangerous to the healthy development of minors, as well as how "uncool" they really are.
   In the meantime, go to the Zipper Web site at www.zippershot.com and use the feedback link on the right side. Tell the two developers of this product that you insist they change the packaging of their product and put a warning on it. And encourage other community members to write.
   NBC recently changed their decision to advertise hard liquor on prime-time TV because of the deluge of mail it received that opposed this practice. Let’s do what we can to have the same impact with products like Zippers.
Judy Shepps Battle is a South Brunswick resident, addictions specialist, consultant and freelance writer. She can be reached by e-mail at judy@writeaction.com