Drug of choice in a pop-top can? Caffeine craze: Among mixed messages sent to children about drugs, here's another.


WHEN GEN. BARRY R. MCCAFFREY, the president's drug czar, visited Baltimore the other day, he spoke about factors that fuel the illicit trade, not least of them the mass media. The government and parents can shout "just say no" all they want -- and they should -- but they compete against a cacophony of pop culture that often suggests to youth that addictions are glamorous and seductive.

Take the recent announcement by Coca-Cola Co. regarding its new soft drink, "Surge." A citrus soda, it is packed with more caffeine than Coke's namesake product. It is aimed at the teen market that has made rival PepsiCo.'s hiply marketed Mountain Dew brand one of the best-selling drinks in the country.

Coke isn't hiding the added caffeine kick. In fact, it's at the core of the beverage giant's $50 million advertising campaign, the largest new-product rollout in a decade: "Feed the rush," the ads will say.

Coke is not alone here. Pepsi has been test-marketing new products with added caffeine in certain cities. Pepsi-Kona, a coffee cola, is sold in the Philadelphia area, and Josta, made with Brazilian guarana berries, can be found in Baltimore and elsewhere. Other products, from a sugary concoction called Jolt cola to caffeine-spiked spring water and juices, have also sought to mine this vein.

The trend toward hopped-up soft drinks serves up another contradictory message to the young: Go ahead, put stuff in your body. It's cool and it feels good, too. Admittedly, these beverages don't possess even half the caffeine of coffee -- which young kids are gulping more of, too.

The point is that soda and fast-food companies have become major purveyors of pop culture. While we keep one eye fixed on Joe Camel, we should be tough on other firms that telegraph unhealthy messages to kids for the sake of a little more market share.

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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