Alcohol-free and low alcohol drinks help some of us to cut down - but they won't end alcohol harm

Lucy Holmes | September 2020 | 7 minutes

Many of us, including the Government, are excited about the potential of the alcohol-free and low alcohol drinks market - but there are many unanswered questions, so we commissioned new research to find out more.

What are the chances you’ve tried an alcohol-free or low-alcohol drink recently? Pretty high – one in five (21%) of us has tried an alcohol-free drink in the last year, rising to 27% if we include ‘low-alcohol’ drinks too. That's what new research by the Social Market Foundation, commissioned by us, has found.

There’s been a huge increase in both the variety and quality of alcohol-free (up to 0.05% ABV) and low alcohol (up to 1.2% ABV) drinks recently. Gone are the times when designated drivers and non-drinkers were stuck with an orange juice – there is now a huge range of alcohol-free beers, wines, ciders and spirits to choose from. We’ve reviewed many of these products over recent years to help people find an alcohol alternative that they’ll enjoy. And if you’re still unsure whether they’re for you, check out Tom’s blog about why they work so well for him.

Gone are the days when designated drivers and non-drinkers were stuck with an orange juice – there is now a huge range of alcohol-free beers, wines, ciders and spirits to choose from.

The rise of no alcohol and low alcohol – ‘NoLo’– drinks has caught the Government’s attention, too. Last year, in a green paper, the Department for Health and Social Care outlined the Government’s intention to work with producers to increase their availability, and to look again at the language producers can use to describe drinks of different strengths.

However, there is little research evidence about NoLo drinks – their impact on drinkers, the effects of their marketing, or consumers’ opinions and attitudes towards them. Some public health experts, for example, have expressed concerns that NoLo drinks could provide a gateway to alcohol for young people, or that drinking NoLo drinks could prove harmful to people in recovery from alcohol dependence.

To bring more clarity to the debate, we commissioned the Social Market Foundation to undertake new research into the NoLo market.

What did the research find?

  • A quarter of adults (27%) have tried a NoLo drink (under 1.2% ABV) in the last year
  • Four in ten (41%) people who have drunk NoLo drinks recently said their alcohol consumption has fallen as a result
  • Younger people are more likely than older people to have drunk a NoLo drink recently (25% of 18-34 year olds, compared to 16% of over 55s)
  • Wealthier people are more likely to have consumed NoLo drinks in the last year, compared to people who are less well off (32% compared to 21%).
  • Men are more likely than women to have drunk NoLo drinks in the last year (32% compared to 22%).
  • The most common reasons people gave for drinking NoLo were:
    • At a time when it was inappropriate to drink alcohol, e.g. when driving (39%)
    • For the taste (38%)
    • To cut down on alcohol intake (33%)
  • The NoLo market (by value of sales) is still relatively small – it was about 0.2% of total alcohol sales in 2018-19.
  • The public are confused about the definitions of, and difference between, ‘alcohol-free’ and ‘low-alcohol’, and the language producers use to describe them is inconsistent.

What next?

The research shows a real need for clarity – consumers need clear and consistent information on NoLo product labels, so that they can choose the products that are right for them. The Government should review how best to guarantee this is done, which may require new regulation and monitoring.

There also needs to be better oversight and regulation of NoLo product marketing. It’s not right that alcohol producers can use their NoLo products as a way to stealthily market their alcohol drinks at the wrong times or places, or to under-18s who shouldn’t constantly be exposed to alcohol promotion. The Government needs to strengthen the restrictions on alcohol marketing and should consider what restrictions are needed for NoLo marketing.

Simply growing the availability and consumption of NoLo won’t significantly reduce serious alcohol harm in the UK. Although drinking NoLo drinks can help individual drinkers to reduce their alcohol consumption, across the population it’s just not a big enough effect. We urgently need the Government to enact a range of effective alcohol policies, preferably through a cross-government alcohol strategy, to reduce harm, alleviate the burden on our public services and save lives.

The Alcohol Charter, endorsed by over 30 organisations across the drugs and alcohol sector, sets out effective and workable policies for a cross-government alcohol strategy.

Read the Charter
Woman looking at label 2

Alcohol-free and low-strength drinks: Understanding their role in reducing alcohol-related harms

Read the full research