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 alcohol-free and low alcohol drinks market is growing fast, both in volume and in variety of products on the market. [1] Supermarkets now have dedicated shelves and pubs and bars offer a greater selection. In this policy insight we will lay out the evidence around alcohol-free and low alcohol drinks and their potential for reducing harm, and how this relates to current and proposed Government policy.

What are alcohol-free and low alcohol drinks?

Not all alcoholic drinks are the same. Stronger drinks have more pure alcohol in them than weaker drinks, indicated by the listed percentage of alcohol by volume or ABV%. The pure alcohol is what causes harm and the more we drink, the more harm is caused. Switching to drinking lower strength versions of any drink will reduce alcohol consumption overall. Even if people drink more drinks to make up for the lower alcohol content, there will still be a reduction in risk of harm, as taking in smaller amounts of more diluted alcohol over longer time periods causes less damage.

Defining NoLo drinks

We sometimes 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).

Why it matters

Despite this guidance, the descriptors are often misused. For example, some 0.5% ABV beers are described as ‘alcohol-free’. This can lead to confusion, and potentially danger, for consumers who are trying to avoid alcohol, such as people who are in recovery or who avoid alcohol for religious reasons. For those who are pregnant or trying to conceive, there is a risk of harm to the foetus, as consuming high levels of alcohol during pregnancy can cause Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Research from Canada tested a range of NoLo drinks and found that around a third contained more alcohol than stated on the label, [2] meaning consumers may be unknowingly consuming alcohol while pregnant. Evidence on harm caused by light drinking is less clear and the benefits of simple, clearly communicated advice to those who are pregnant must be balanced with the risks of causing undue stress and anxiety.

An increase in the use of alcohol-free and low-alcohol drinks could have positive, negative or neutral impacts on a consumer’s risk of harm.

Positive outcomes would be:

  • Substitution: People replace their consumption of alcoholic drinks with NoLo drinks
  • Cultural shift: There is a shift in drinking cultures away from a reliance on alcoholic drinks as the default choice

A neutral outcome would be:

  • Additionality: People drink NoLo drinks in addition to their current alcohol consumption, so overall there is no change

Negative outcomes would be:

  • Trigger: NoLo drinks trigger abstinent people in recovery to start drinking alcoholic drinks again
  • Gateway: NoLo drink brands introduce children and young people to the taste and brands of alcoholic drinks
  • Regulatory slippage: alcohol drink brands circumvent sales and marketing rules through NoLo drinks
  • Confusion: customers drinking ‘low’ alcohol thinking it is alcohol free

Further research should monitor whether and to what extent any of these effects are occurring. Policies should be put in place to reduce the likelihood of any negative effects.

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.

Possible policy solutions

Current government policy is to support the growth of NoLo drinks as a way of preventing alcohol harm, however more needs to be done to mitigate potential negative impacts.

There are many potential ways to encourage the growth of NoLo drinks and reduce risks.

  • Tax incentives: the current tax system for alcohol encourages the production of higher strength drinks for some types of alcohol which are taxed by volume rather than strength. There should be a simpler and fairer system which taxes all alcohol types according to strength. If higher strength products incur more tax, producers will be motivated to reformulate their products to a lower strength. When more lower strength products are on the market, overall alcohol consumption will decrease.
  • Industry commitments: the government can work with the alcohol industry to agree on commitments to increase the availability of NoLo drinks. However, previous industry agreements on other alcohol policies have been unsuccessful, such as the Public Health Responsibility Deal [3] and the agreement to include the up-to-date low-risk drinking guidelines on labels. [4]
  • Consumer demand: Although there are many NoLo drinks on the market, they are often not sold in bars and pubs. Some are only available online. Consumer demand for these drinks in both the on- and off-trade could lead to them becoming more widely available. Government might be able to encourage consumer demand in various ways.
  • Advertising rules: current advertising rules state that brands with both a full-strength and NoLo version of the same drink cannot advertise the NoLo version alongside the full-strength version, as it could end up encouraging consumption of the higher strength product. This rule is set to change, however, should only allow the lower strength product to be advertised favourably in comparison to the higher strength product, and not vice versa.

Timeline

May 2018: government consults on whether low alcohol descriptors should be changed

December 2018: alcohol-free and low-alcohol descriptors rules as set out in the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 are revoked and replaced by similar guidance. Following this guidance is voluntary, which has led to inconsistency in how some products are labelled. [5]

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”.

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

September 2020: research by Social Market Foundation on the role of NoLo drinks in reducing alcohol-related harms

April 2021: CAP/BCAP consultation on amending limitations on advertising low-alcohol products – read our response to the consultation here

What should happen next? Our policy asks

Although NoLo products can be very helpful for individuals, this research suggests they are unlikely to generate reduction in alcohol harms across the population. Promoting consumption of NoLo drinks alone is an insufficient response to population-level alcohol harm - government needs to do much more to tackle alcohol harm.

  • 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. Furthermore, the ‘alcohol free’ descriptor should not be used for products above 0.05% ABV.
  • 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.

References

[1] Corfe, S., Hyde, R. and Shepherd, J. (2020). Alcohol-free and low-strength drinks: Understanding their role in reducing alcohol-related harms. Social Market Foundation.

[2] Goh, Y. I., Verjee, Z., & Koren, G. (2010). Alcohol content in declared non-to low alcoholic beverages: implications to pregnancy.The Canadian journal of clinical pharmacology = Journal canadien de pharmacologie clinique, 17(1), e47–e50.

[3] Institute of Alcohol Studies (2015). Dead on arrival? Evaluating the Public Health Responsibility Deal for Alcohol.

[4] Alcohol Health Alliance (2020). Drinking in the dark: How alcohol labelling fails consumers.

[5] Alcohol Health Alliance (2020). Drinking in the dark: How alcohol labelling fails consumers.