Do alcohol-free drinks help heavy drinkers cut their drinking?

21 July 2023

Executive summary

  • Alcohol Change UK conducted an online survey in 2022 into the importance of ‘alcohol-free’ drinks to those people who are cutting back on their drinking. The survey was designed to recruit exclusively hazardous and harmful drinkers who had attempted – or were currently attempting – to cut back on their drinking. This was successful, with 1,456 out of 1,478 responses meeting this criterion.
  • Our primary research question was: “What proportion of the harmful and hazardous drinkers who are/have been on a drink reduction journey believe that ‘alcohol-free’ drinks are/were an important element in their success?”
  • 'Alcohol-free' drinks were found to be important for most harmful and hazardous drinkers who trying to reduce their consumption in this sample.
  • 83% of people who were cutting back found AF drinks to be important to that, in this sample.
  • 53% found AF drinks “essential” or “very important” to their attempt to cut back.
  • The use of ‘alcohol-free’ drinks was associated with success in moving from higher to lower drinking categories for the majority of the sample.
  • 'Alcohol-free' drinks were shown to help people of all ages, income levels, and genders in this sample.
  • The main reasons given for why AF drinks help people to cut back were:
    • To help people to socialise.
    • Because they enable people to successfully manage their cravings while their body and brain adjusts to not drinking or drinking less.
    • Because they are a familiar and positive taste, but without the negative effects of the alcohol.
    • Because they enable people to replace a negative habit with a new healthier habit, rather than simply removing something.
  • The people in the sample that find AF drinks did not help them, gave these reasons:
    • Because they don’t contain alcohol and that’s my only reason for drinking.
    • Because they act as a trigger and lead to wanting the ‘real’ thing.
    • Because they are too expensive.
  • The sample found the availability of AF drinks to be good in the off-trade, poor in the on-trade.
  • A large part of the sample found AF drinks to be over-priced, especially in the on-trade.
  • The vast majority of the sample (85%) expect ‘alcohol-free’ to mean 0.0% ABV (zero/no alcohol at all) (45%) or 0.05% ABV (trace) (40%). Fewer than 6% believe that ‘alcohol-free’ should mean 0.5% ABV. If policy-makers wish to build confidence in the alcohol-free drinks market and secure the positive benefits, this finding must be embraced and ‘descriptors’ must marry with these public expectations.
  • Further research is needed into the hypothetical negative effects of ‘alcohol-free’ drinks.
  • 'Alcohol-free' drinks should be seen as potentially important factor in alcohol harm reduction, and one that has probably been under-estimated to date.
  • Policy development should seek to maximise the positive and minimise the negative effects.
  • Certain policy actions could encourage greater use of alcohol-free drinks by hazardous and harmful drinkers: pricing controls, government messaging, managed marketing, greater availability, descriptors that match public expectations and meaningful support for existing initiatives that work, like Dry January®.
  • Any policy action on AF drinks should be part of a cross-Government strategy to end alcohol harm through other effective measures: increased pricing of alcoholic drinks; better regulation of alcohol labelling, marketing, underage online sales, and licensing, and proper funding for alcohol treatment services.