Cartoons on an IPA can? These NH teens say frothy beer labels need to sober up
Last month, the members of an after-school club called Dover Youth 2 Youth took a field trip to the State House in Concord. They arrived armed with empty beer cans, part of their planned testimony before lawmakers.
“For example, we have this brand of beer from Concord Brewing Company that has cans designed like the kids animated movie we’ve all seen: ‘Finding Nemo,’ ” explained Megan Merrigan, 12, during public testimony on the bill.
State senators were handed a can with an illustration of a brightly colored fish resembling a character in the Disney movie.
Merrigan, along with her teenage peers, contend that alcohol-makers are using imagery on their labels--whether intentional or not--that appeals to minors. They offered this as Exhibit A for why the laws needed to change.
“They're most likely not going to pick something that's like a big, boring bottle of beer,” said Dani Lynn Somer, 14, another member of the Dover after-school program. “Kids go for something that's more enticing to the eye.”
The legislation these students are backing seeks to provide more clarity to both the alcohol industry and state regulators about what’s acceptable on a label of beer, wine or spirits. Cartoons, toys and other fictional characters that a kid may associate with would be prohibited.
But local craft brewers contend their labels, which are often designed by local artists and rooted in the individual culture of the business, are at risk of getting caught up in any enhanced regulations. These beers are being brewed for adults, they contend, and only available for purchase by people 21 and up.
Real dog, illustrated dog
Under current New Hampshire law, the state Liquor Commission has the power to block any alcohol label that regulators believe is designed to induce minors to drink. Alcoholic products that also falsely imply through labeling that they improve athletic performance are also prohibited.
In total, the agency reviews 5,400 labels annually — every bottle of wine, can of beer, or spirit sold in the state — approving 96% of them.
Senate Bill 335 would add clarifying language to the statute, spelling out that cartoons, toys, robots, fictional animals and creatures that are consistent with other products marketed at minors are a no-go. It would also create a new board to handle appeals from rejected applicants.
(The Liquor Commission said, in a statement to NHPR, its approval of the “Finding NEIPA,” Nemo-themed label was done in error, and that after a “constructive conversation with the brewer, Concord Craft agreed to change the imagery, according to a spokesperson.)
Last November, To Share Brewing based in Manchester submitted four labels that were initially rejected by the Liquor Commission. Two of those labels included illustrations by a local artist of the co-owner’s pet.
“It's the face of my dog with her tongue sticking out,” said Aaron Share, holding up a can inside of his brewery on a recent morning. He said he has submitted more than 80 labels since founding the brewery, and that these were the first to be rejected.
“I don't see anything on this label that would be considered a cartoon, or that would induce a minor to drink,” he said.
Share said the Liquor Commission later notified him, without explanation, that it had reversed course and approved the labels.
He fears that under the proposed legislation, regulators would have to make subjective calls about products, and may lack the qualifications to do so.
“Do they have a background in art? You know, are they a child psychologist?” he said.
As well known as Mickey Mouse
The debate now going on in the New Hampshire State House is in some ways a throwback to the 1990s, when it was tobacco, and not alcohol, coming under scrutiny. Federal regulators determined that much cigarette advertising — including Camel’s cartoon spokesperson, Joe Camel — was designed to appeal to children.
Dr. James Sargent, a behavioral epidemiologist at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine, was a young researcher at Joe Camel’s peak, and said the ads were so ubiquitous and seductive that a study found the camel was “recognized as commonly as Mickey Mouse” amongst children.
There were eventually stricter labeling and marketing rules applied to cigarettes in the United States, and some parts of Europe have gone farther with tobacco packaging restrictions.
“I don't think we're ready to do that for beer,” Sergant said, “but I certainly think the New Hampshire law to do away with cartoon-like characters is not unreasonable.”
But during the legislative hearing last month, some lawmakers, including Republican state Sen. Dan Innis, seemed skeptical that any new guidance or regulation could be done in a way that’s consistent.
“The hard part for me is how are these decisions going to be made,” he said. “And that’s where it just gets messy.”
Take for example other boozy offerings now available on store shelves: alcoholic Monster energy drinks, spiked Sunny D, and Eggo Waffles branded liquors. What do you do with those products? Are they aimed at kids? Nostalgic adults?
Mia Mozzoni, 18, from the Dover Youth 2 Youth group, said she doesn’t appreciate how the broader industry views people her age and wants to see adults take steps to protect her and other young people.
“I don't like being targeted by the industry. I don't like seeing my peers ruin their brains and their livers at like 14 and 15 because they're binge drinking,” she said, adding, “It's just a problem.”