According to a study published in the open access journal BMC Public Health on today (8 February), wines and beers with lower-alcohol content aren’t being actively marketed as alternatives to regular-strength alcohol products and thus may not be promoting healthier drinking habits in consumers.
The data comes from a research team led by the University of Cambridge that analysed the marketing messages on producers’ and retailers’ websites for lower and regular-strength wines and beers sold online by the four main supermarkets in the UK.
The authors found that lower strength wines were more likely to be marketed as suitable for consumption on any occasion or every day, with messages describing them as “lunchtime treats” or “perfect for all occasions”.
Detriment to health
Dr Milica Vasiljevic, corresponding author of the study, said: “Increased availability of lower-strength alcohol products has the potential to reduce alcohol consumption if consumers select these products instead of ones with higher-alcohol content. If not, they may simply increase the number of occasions on which people drink alcohol.
"Our findings suggest that products containing less alcohol than regular-strength wines and beers may be being marketed to replace soft drinks rather than products with higher-alcohol content.
"Marketing lower-strength alcohol wine and beer as being healthier than regular-strength products and suitable for all occasions may paradoxically encourage greater alcohol consumption. Thus, measures apparently intended to benefit public health, such as the wider availability of lower-alcohol products may, in fact, benefit industry to the detriment of health.”
The research involved 86 web pages marketing 41 lower-strength wines and 48 web pages marketing 16 lower-strength beers.
These were defined as containing less than 8.5% ABV for wine and 2.8% ABV for beer.
Products 'really help'
However, leading industry voices have criticised the research and praised the work producers of low-alcohol drinks have accomplished.
Laura Willoughby MBE, co-founder of Mindful Drinking Movement Club Soda, said: “The scientists need to get from behind their computer screens and actually speak to people and see if their theory is actually true.
"We know from our 15,000 members that switching to lower-strength drinks, especially those at 0.5% ABV and under really helps.
"It is good for healthier behaviour change. Sugary drinks just don’t cut it. People look for things lower in calories and designed for grown-ups and many of these drinks do just that. Their research makes it sound like we can’t make up our own minds."
Advertising red tape
British Beer & Pub Association chief executive Brigid Simmonds added: “Among alcoholic drinks, beer is already the lowest-strength option available. Notwithstanding this, in recent years, brewers have worked hard to remove 1.3bn units of alcohol from the market through producing low or no-strength options and reducing the strength of existing products.
“Existing rules around advertising mean you cannot market alcoholic drinks to consumers based on their relative low ABV compared to stronger ones. We are seeking changes to these rules set through the Advertising Standards Agency and have been for a number of years. Moreover, current labelling regulations further restrict the ability to market lower-strength products.
“The findings of this study also run counter to recent research commissioned by Drinkaware, which found that in 2017 a quarter of those who drink alcohol chose an alcoholic drink of lower strength when attempting to reduce their overall consumption of alcohol.”