Health

Change to 'alcohol-free' drinks 'could improve nation's health' – but it's 'not enough on its own'

The government wants to change rules so beers up to 0.5% ABV can be called 'alcohol-free'

Image: Unsplash

The government is planning to increase the number of drinks that can be labelled ‘no alcohol’ or ‘alcohol-free’ in an attempt to encourage drinkers to switch to lower-alcohol lifestyles

Brewers will be able to label drinks with 0.5% ABV as ‘no alcohol’, rather than the current 0.05% threshold, if the government gets its way with a consultation launched in September.

More than 20,000 people in England died of alcohol-related causes in 2021. In Scotland, people from the most deprived groups are five times more likely to die an alcohol-related death.

This change could be a huge benefit for Brits looking to move away from a “stubborn drinking habit”, with alcohol-free drinks offering an important option for heavier drinkers, Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Change UK, told the Big Issue.

“Encouraging more substitution of alcoholic with non-alcoholic drinks is an important objective for government,” Piper said.

“Expanding the take-up of these drinks by increasing their availability and their price difference with alcohol-containing drinks could help improve the nation’s health and we encourage further government action in these areas.”

Dry January isn’t the only time low-alcohol alternatives are proving popular in the UK. Sales of ‘no and low’ beer have been increasing month-on-month for Tesco in 2023.

Other alcohol interventions across the UK have worked to reduce the harms from drinking. Scotland’s minimum alcohol pricing of 50p per unit, introduced in 2018, reduced deaths from alcohol consumption by 13.4%.

Public health minister Neil O’Brien said: “No- and low-alcohol drinks are getting more and more popular, and we are looking to further support their growth. Many other countries around the world already allow more freedom over this. Liberalising labelling guidelines could also help people make more informed choices about the drinks they buy.

“We want to encourage the growth of no- and low-alcohol alternatives for those looking to moderate their alcohol intake.”

But Piper warned that the change to labelling is not enough on its own, and that existing labelling is already confusing.

“One of the key barriers to the take-up of these drinks is consumer confusion about labelling, particularly the inconsistent use of the descriptors ‘zero’, ‘alcohol-free’, ‘non-alcoholic’ and ‘dealcoholised’,” he said.

“There is also a lack of consumer understanding about ‘very low’ ABV drinks, such as the fact that a day in which someone only consumes drinks at or below 0.5% ABV counts as a ‘dry day’.”

A drink can be labelled ‘low alcohol’ if it is 1.2% ABV or below, and ‘no alcohol’ at 0.05% ABV or below.

Piper called for better regulated marketing, action on “super-cheap, super-strong supermarket alcohol”, and clearer labelling.

He added: “We need to ensure that any downside risks of no- and low-alcohol drinks – acting as ‘gateway’ drinks for children, triggering some people in recovery to drink the alcoholic versions, enabling brands to bend marketing rules, normalising drinking alcohol while driving – are properly researched, understood and avoided.” 

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