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

8 September 2020


Social Market Foundation: Scott Corfe, Richard Hyde, Jake Shepherd

Key findings

The market for NoLo drinks – rapid growth, but market share remains very low
  • The market for NoLo drinks in the UK is seeing significant growth.
  • However, this growth is from a very low base and must be put into context.
  • Achieving a significant market share for NoLo drinks over the next decade would thus require consistent, strong sales growth.
  • The relatively small size of the NoLo drinks market thus needs to be taken into account when assessing the current health benefits from the use of such products at a population level.
Consumers of NoLo drinks – disproportionately young, male and higher income, with implications for the distribution of health impacts
  • Across the nationally representative sample of individuals surveyed by Opinium, just over a fifth (21%) of individuals had consumed an alcohol-free drink in the past 12 months.
  • There are significant differences in consumption of NoLo drinks across demographic groups.
  • Among individuals that had consumed a NoLo drink in the past 12 months, the most commonly cited reason for doing so was to drink at times when it would not have been more appropriate to have something stronger (39%) – for example, when driving later on.
  • Among those that have never consumed NoLo drinks, the most commonly cited reasons were that individuals would prefer to drink a soft drink if not drinking alcohol (39%) and that individuals would rather consume a conventional alcoholic drink (35%).
  • In the nationally representative Opinium survey, while two-fifths (38%) of individuals that had previously had a NoLo drink thought they would be likely to consume an alcohol-free drink over the next 12 months, just 3% of those that had never had a NoLo drink said they would be likely to have one.
Regulation of NoLo drinks – an approach to descriptors that leads to significant inconsistency in how NoLo drinks are labelled and relatively few safeguards against the use of NoLo drinks as a form of alibi marketing.
  • Although low-strength and alcohol-free drinks have been identified as an area of interest for Government, there is a lack of a distinct policy on their production, marketing, or how they might be aligned with public health objectives. Many aspects of drinks marketing and labelling, including NoLo marketing and labelling, are self-regulated by industry.
  • There is limited regulation on the marketing and advertising of NoLo drinks.
  • Descriptors and labelling for NoLo drinks are governed by guidelines, not legislation. This means current regulations are unclear, posing difficulties for brewers, retailers, and the consumer.
  • The UK has relatively narrow definitions of what constitutes ‘low-strength’ and ‘alcohol-free’ compared to some other European countries.
  • Other countries restrict marketing of NoLo products with similar branding to regular strength drinks, to reduce the potential for alibi marketing.
Presentation of NoLo drinks in the media and advertising – two marketing approaches being pursued by industry.

The researchers undertook an evaluation of a range of media outputs, including mainstream media articles, pieces in the “drinks” trade press and of marketing materials produced by drinks producers or associated with drinks producers.

  • The primary narrative in the mainstream press revolves around changing consumption habits and a “new sensibility” particularly among younger people, driving healthier lifestyles and desire for new kinds of “experiences” that are “sophisticated” but not necessarily alcohol-based. The NoLo trend is seen as a “movement” that is “here to stay”. Not only that, but a “high status” movement. It is discussed in the media in the context of celebrities, Michelin-starred restaurants and “trendy” bars.
  • In aggregate, media coverage and marketing materials suggest that there are two growth strategies being pursued by NoLo drinks manufacturers. One is focussed on building NoLo drinks as a distinct branch of the wider drinks sector. The other aims to encourage people to consume NoLo drinks at times and on occasions when alcohol would not normally be consumed. This might distort some of the public discourse around these drinks.
  • The two growth strategies exist on a continuum, and very few producers sit at the extremes, but on balance producers tend to lean more towards one approach over the other. A key factor determining which way a producer leans appears to be whether the producer already sells alcoholic drinks to any great degree. If they do, they tend to prefer what this report calls the “additional consumption” approach.
  • There is as yet little research as to whether the media narratives are actually played out in practice in consumer behaviour.
Impacts of NoLo drinks on alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harms – a complex picture
  • Within the booster sample of current and past drinkers of NoLo beverages commissioned as part of this research, half (50%) reported that their current alcohol consumption was unchanged as a result of consuming these drinks.
  • Among those reporting a change in alcohol consumption as a result of NoLo, it was more common to report reduced levels of alcohol consumption rather than increased levels.
  • Among those that have consumed a NoLo product recently – within the last 12 months – the survey findings were more encouraging – with 41% reporting cutting back or giving up completely, against 44% saying their alcohol consumption was unchanged.
  • The majority of recent NoLo consumers – 57% - agreed with the statement that they used NoLo on specific occasions – such as when driving or waking up early the following day.
  • About a third (32%) of those that had consumed a NoLo drink in the last 12 months agreed that they had been using these products on top of, rather than instead of, existing levels of alcohol consumption. Just under two fifths (39%) disagreed with this statement. Therefore, while a significant proportion of consumers report that NoLo drinks have led to them cutting back on alcohol consumption, policymakers should be mindful of a significant demographic of users that are consuming these products as complements to, rather than substitutes for, stronger products. As such, it is difficult to predict the impacts of increased consumption of NoLo drinks on alcohol consumption in aggregate.
  • We find little difference in impacts on current alcohol consumption between males and females, or between socioeconomic groups.
  • Despite public health experts spoken to as part of this research expressing concern about minors consuming NoLo drinks, a majority of consumers surveyed believe this is acceptable – particularly in the home.
  • Moderate and heavy drinkers appear more likely than non-drinkers and light drinkers to consume NoLo drinks on specific occasions (such as when driving), and on top of (rather than instead of) consumption of stronger drinks. This might limit the potential health benefits that could be realised from increased use of NoLo products.
Considerations for policymakers

The report concludes by identifying a number of areas for policymakers to consider with respect to NoLo drinks. Specifically:

  • Government descriptors for NoLo drinks seem unfit for purpose. Reducing the number of NoLo descriptors, increasing consumer awareness of these and making them mandatory could greatly improve clarity around the alcohol-content of NoLo drinks, and their potential health implications.
  • Potential health risks of low-strength drinks need to be labelled clearly. A number of health experts we interviewed were concerned about a lack of clarity around the safety of NoLo drinks for specific individuals – such those who are pregnant and those with a liver condition.
  • Advertising legislation should aim to limit the use of NoLo drinks for alibi marketing.
  • NoLo drinks need to be seen as one tool, among others, for reducing alcohol-related harms. Given the picture of irregular usage, low market share and a high proportion of consumers reporting no change in overall alcohol consumption, it is unclear why the Government’s Prevention Green Paper has homed in on NoLo drinks as a way of reducing alcohol-related harms. Although some individuals could see sizeable health improvements through use of NoLo drinks, in isolation it seems unlikely that these products can drive the reductions in aggregate alcohol-related harms that most health experts would desire. As such, it is crucial that the prevention agenda within government is broadened out to focus on other policy options – such as those that reduce the availability of low-cost high-strength drinks, higher rates of taxation on stronger beverages, minimum unit pricing and measures to encourage reformulation of stronger alcoholic drinks. NoLo drinks need to be explored in parallel with other means of preventing harms.
  • Evidence gaps with respect to NoLo need to be filled in with further research. Particular evidence gaps of note include:
    • The extent to which different NoLo descriptors and regulatory environments have a bearing on health outcomes and the types of products on offer in different countries.
    • Similarly, an assessment of how changing UK NoLo descriptors would impact consumer behaviour and, in turn, health outcomes.
    • An examination of the extent to which any planned government measures to encourage NoLo drinks consumption are effective and generate health benefits.
    • The extent to which NoLo products in the UK might contain more alcohol than stated on the label.

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