Alcohol-free and low alcohol drinks

Alcohol-free and low alcohol alternatives can help some people to cut down their drinking – but how much can ‘NoLo’ drinks do to reduce alcohol harm?

The NoLo drinks market is growing fast, both in volume and in variety of products on the market. Supermarkets now have dedicated shelves and pubs and bars offer a greater selection. In this blog we will lay out the evidence around NoLo drinks and their potential for reducing alcohol harm, and how this relates to current and potential Government policy.

Defining NoLo drinks

We use 'NoLo' to describe the whole range of alcohol-free and low alcohol (under 1.2%) drinks. We use this shorthand because the official ways of describing these drinks are complex. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) recommend producers use these descriptors:

Low-alcohol – No more than 1.2% ABV.

De-alcoholised – No more than 0.5% ABV, drinks where alcohol has been extracted

Alcohol-free – No more than 0.05% ABV, drinks where alcohol has been extracted

Non-alcoholic – not to be used for products with a name commonly associated with an alcoholic drink, like ‘beer’ or ‘gin’. (Except for communion or sacramental wine).

What do we know about NoLo drinks?

Evidence about the consumption, marketing and impact of NoLo products is limited so, in 2020, Alcohol Change UK commissioned the Social Market Foundation to conduct research into NoLo drinks and the part they could play in tackling alcohol harm. The report found that:

  • The growth of the NoLo market is building from a low starting point. In 2018-19, NoLo sales were just 0.2% of the alcohol sales market. This is because, although a fifth of adults have drunk NoLo products in the last year, they tend to drink them infrequently or occasionally.
  • Nearly half (42%) of adults have tried NoLo drinks. One-fifth (21%) of the representative sample surveyed had drunk an alcohol-free drink in the last year, rising to 27% when we include low alcohol drinks, and a further fifth (21%) had consumed a NoLo drink more than a year ago.
  • Certain groups are more likely to have tried NoLo drinks.
    • Men are more likely than women to have drunk NoLo drinks
    • Younger people are more likely to have drunk them than older people.
    • Wealthier people are more likely to have consumed NoLo drinks.
    • People with children under the age of 18 at home are more likely to have drunk NoLo drinks than others.
    • People who drink alcohol are more likely than non-drinkers to have consumed them.
  • The most common reasons 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%)

Nearly half (44%) of recent NoLo drinkers surveyed said NoLo products had not impacted on their alcohol consumption, but nearly the same number (41%) said drinking NoLo had led to them stopping drinking or reducing their intake. We can therefore conclude that NoLo drinks are very helpful for some people, supporting them to reduce their drinking (and therefore alcohol harm) significantly. This is not, however, the case for the majority of NoLo consumers.

This valuable research also highlighted a number of evidence gaps which should be addressed before the NoLo market grows much bigger. We need more research: to identify the nature of the impacts of NoLo drinks on different groups of people (such as heavy drinkers, young people, people in recovery); to understand how different regulatory approaches would affect health outcomes; and to examine how any planned government efforts to encourage consumption might reduce alcohol harm. Furthermore, research in Canada uncovered NoLo drinks that contained more alcohol than stated on the label – no such research has been done in the UK.

Current policy

The Government has expressed interest in supporting the growth of NoLo drinks as a way of preventing alcohol harm. In July 2019 the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) published a consultation Green Paper, ‘Advancing our health: prevention in the 2020s’. In the Green Paper the Government proposed to:

  • “work with industry to deliver a significant increase in the availability of alcohol-free and low-alcohol products by 2025”
  • “review the evidence to consider increasing the alcohol-free descriptor threshold from 0.05% abv up to 0.5% abv in line with some other countries in Europe” in order to “support further innovation in the sector and encourage people to move towards alcohol-free products”.

Evidence suggests that while NoLo products can be extremely helpful for some individuals, and a good occasional alternative for many, they are not a silver bullet solution to alcohol harm. This is especially true because of the evidence gaps around alcohol-free drinks (see above), which need addressing before the market grows significantly bigger.

Read our response to the Green Paper. The Government has not yet responded to the Green Paper consultation.

What should happen next?

NoLo drinks are an insufficient response to population-level alcohol harm. They are currently too small in scale to bring significant benefit, and most users do not use them to reduce their alcohol intake. Although NoLo products can be very helpful for individuals, this research suggests they are unlikely to generate reduction in alcohol harms across the population. Supporting the growth of the NoLo market is not enough - government needs to do much more to tackle alcohol harm.

The UK needs a comprehensive cross-government strategy on alcohol that encompasses all the relevant government departments and policy levers, and which is adequately resourced and provides a clear timeline for implementation.

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

In addition:

  • NoLo drink descriptors are unclear, complex and out of step with other European countries. We welcome government’s commitment to reviewing them. However, like the labelling of alcoholic drinks, labelling of NoLo products needs adequate, statutory regulation and monitoring if it is to be consistent and fit for purpose. Given that even low amounts of alcohol could present health risks to certain people, potential health risks should also be clearly labelled.
  • The marketing and advertising of NoLo products requires proper regulation and oversight, to prevent alcohol manufacturers using NoLo marketing to stealthily advertise their brand in inappropriate places or times, or to people who should be protected from this promotion, for example under 18s.
  • If government is to expend any effort or resource supporting NoLo producers to grow their market share, they must consult on and publish clear policies on NoLo production, marketing and labelling, and be explicit about how they align with public health objectives. Government must also address the significant evidence gaps around the impact of NoLo products on alcohol harm.