YELLOW PAD

By Kaloi Garcia

Earlier this year, the Coca-Cola Company launched their beverage collaboration with American whiskey brand Jack Daniels called “Jack & Coca-Cola,” otherwise known as Jack and Coke, in the Philippines. The packaging design retains Coca-Cola’s classic black and red aesthetic and features both brands’ logos alongside each other. These beverages are readily purchased in groceries and convenience stores, often placed beside juices and other non-alcoholic beverages, increasing accessibility for young people and confusion among parents.

Jack & Coke is an example of “alcopops,” which are defined as ready-to-drink, flavored, pre-mixed beverages with alcohol content of up to 10%, created by mixing alcoholic products and non-alcoholic ingredients. They often come in attractively branded or brightly colored packaging, designed to evoke a sense of familiarity and approachability. Their fruity flavors cover the bitter taste of alcohol. This makes them appealing to young people, who may not be aware of the risks of alcohol consumption.

Jack & Coke is not the only alcopop in Coca-Cola’s portfolio. The company previously released a spiked version of its lemonade drink called Simply Lemonade in the United States. Other traditionally child-friendly brands such as Mountain Dew and Dunkin’ have followed suit.

In the Philippines, an expanding array of alcopops from Japan and Korea has entered the market, characterized by their vibrant and fruit-themed branding and eye-catching, colorful labels. Legacy brands like San Miguel have also introduced their own hard seltzer drinks, featuring vivid packaging designs and marketed as easy to drink beverages that appeal to younger consumers. These beverages join the likes of Smirnoff Mule and Tanduay Ice.

The marketing of alcopops to the Filipino youth is particularly concerning. In the Philippines, 15% of Filipinos aged 10 to 19 use alcohol, and 37% of them are underage drinkers. As early as 2013, the Global School-based Student Health Survey (GSHS) developed by the World Health Organization and other multilateral institutions showed that Filipino youth who were exposed to alcohol advertising were more likely to drink alcohol and binge drink.

The consequences of early alcohol exposure are well-documented. Alcohol threatens brain development, challenges sound decision-making, and can lead to alcohol use disorder. Underage drinking can also lead to a myriad of social problems like a decline in academic performance, violence, and deadly car crashes.

The fact that alcohol companies are targeting the youth, one of the sectors most vulnerable to the ill effects of alcohol, through easy to access and appealing drinks like alcopops, should compel our legislators to act now.

In 2019, Senator Pia Cayetano, a staunch health advocate, called the sale of alcopops “unethical.” She proposed clearer labels on alcopops which clearly state the alcoholic content of the beverage, as existing labels are often smaller and difficult to see. Furthermore, she suggested alcopops be available for sale only in designated liquor sections with age verification checks during purchases to ensure that buyers meet legal age requirements.

Last year, Rep. Joey Salceda, Chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, filed House Bill 1810 which increases the tax on alcopops by reclassifying them as fermented liquors or beer. Alcopops are currently taxed as distilled spirits, which have a lower tax rate than beer. This creates a discrepancy, as alcopops and beer both appeal to the younger population and are substitute products, yet alcopops are taxed lower.

This strategy is rooted in the proven success of implementing taxes on harmful products such as cigarettes. In the Philippines, higher taxes on tobacco have been directly associated with a decrease in tobacco use. Tobacco use has fallen by a third from 2012 to 2021.

Regulation and especially taxes are powerful tools that can help mitigate alcohol harms. Alcopops, with their youth-friendly appeal, deceptive packaging, and their potential to be used by alcohol companies to introduce youth to alcohol, pose a unique threat that requires immediate attention.

Mr. Salceda must move House Bill 1810 forward with a sense of urgency. This bill has unfortunately been idle since it was filed, and health advocates have been awaiting its progression. By prioritizing this bill, Mr. Salceda has the perfect opportunity to champion the health and wellbeing of the youth and of all Filipinos.

Kaloi Garcia is the communications manager of Vital Strategies, Philippines.