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DOVER, N.H. — Twelve-year-olds Megan Merrigan and Eleanor Gorman spoke with passersby as they stood in the sun Wednesday on a downtown sidewalk. Megan held up a poster board with five empty beverage containers, as Eleanor outlined her concern that their colorful packaging seemed to market alcohol in a way that would appeal to kids.
One beer can’s design, from Concord Craft Brewing Co. in New Hampshire, drew stylistic cues from the 2003 animated feature film “Finding Nemo.” Another, from Downeast Cider in Massachusetts, invoked the sugar-high red and blue hues of frozen “Slushie” drinks. Others advertised fruity flavors in the hard seltzers that have recently boomed in popularity.
Megan and Eleanor’s face-to-face public awareness efforts were part of a much broader campaign. About 40 other middle and high schoolers joined them on the sidewalk in an event organized by Dover Youth to Youth, an after-school drug prevention program with ties to the city’s police department. They waved protest signs, chanted about “Big Alcohol,” and even held a press conference in which kids fielded questions.
Maggie Elliott, 11, said that she feels like “Sunny D” branded vodka seltzer, for example, targets her and her friends, who are still a decade away from being old enough to drink.
“It used to be a kid drink,” she said, “and now they put alcohol in it.”
About 10 percent of kids in New Hampshire report having their first alcoholic beverage before their 13th birthday. That’s down a few percentage points from a decade ago, according to the state’s biennial youth risk behavior survey.
Alcohol consumption among the state’s high schoolers has been on the decline, too. In 2011, 38.4 percent of students said they drank alcohol. That number has dropped incrementally year after year, falling to 21.3 percent in 2021, according to the survey.
Still, alcohol remains one of the most commonly used substances among children and teens, and the concern is that they might be more likely to try products that are marketed as sugary and fun. The kids themselves are the ones scanning store shelves and identifying which drinks jump out to them, according to Vicki Harris, the Youth to Youth coalition coordinator.
Harris said the students will share their concerns with the New Hampshire Liquor Commission. They plan to urge the commission to keep at least one product, Hard Mtn Dew, away from store shelves in New Hampshire because it’s too similar to what they view as a soft drink for teens.
But the producers of these alcoholic beverages contend their products are clearly marketed to adults 21 and older.
“We take concerns like this very seriously and have established clear distinctions in packaging, merchandising, and marketing to ensure Hard Mtn Dew is only for adults of legal drinking age,” said Taylor Jette, communications manager for The Boston Beer Company, which produces Hard Mtn Dew in a brand collaboration with PepsiCo.
Those distinctions include clear markings on Hard Mtn Dew cans, adult-oriented graphics that differ from non-alcoholic Mountain Dew products, and positioning within alcoholic beverage display units at retailers, Jette said. What’s more, the company follows industry standards for marketing and advertising, she said.
Dennis Molnar, co-owner of Concord Craft Brewing Co., acknowledged that his business had been contacted by Youth to Youth regarding the colorful fish-covered “Finding NEIPA” beer can. But the target demographic doesn’t include those who were born in the two decades since “Finding Nemo” premiered.
“Our intention is to have fun labels that adults can relate to and not market to underage persons,” Molnar said.
“We are required to have state liquor commission approval of all labels, specifically to ensure we are compliant with all applicable laws, including not marketing to underage persons,” he added. “The label in question has been approved by the commission.”
Even so, don’t be surprised if you hear more on this topic in the coming months. Youth to Youth has public service announcements in the works.