Australian sales of zero-alcohol beverages – which mimic alcoholic drinks, but contain less than 0.5% alcohol – have sharply increased over the past two years. They’re marketed as a healthier alternative to alcohol, but a commentary in Drug and Alcohol Review has called this into question, saying more research is needed to see whether they actually reduce drinking, or if they could be a gateway to more alcohol consumption.
“We really need to understand how people are using zero-alcohol products,” says Dr Cassandra Wright, senior author on the paper and a researcher at the Menzies School of Health Research.
Zero-alcohol beverages have been presented as harm-reducing substitutes for alcoholic drinks, but Wright says there’s no evidence they reduce alcohol consumption at a population-wide level.
“We’ve heard anecdotal pieces, but we’ve also heard from people with substance use disorders saying their presence in supermarkets is harmful to them too,” she says.
Zero-alcohol beverages are classified as equivalent to soft drinks in Australia and New Zealand, meaning they can be sold in supermarkets to people under 18 years of age.
“There is currently not enough research to support the sale of zero-alcohol beverages in supermarkets,” says Mia Miller, a researcher at the George Institute for Global Health and lead author on the paper.
“Children and young people may be buying these products from their local store, some of which do contain small amounts of alcohol. But more importantly, researchers do not yet know what impact consuming zero-alcohol beverages in childhood will have on subsequent alcohol use.”
The researchers point out that alcohol companies often market non-alcoholic beverages as drinkable in scenarios where alcohol isn’t appropriate, such as in workplaces, while driving cars, and while operating machinery.
“This marketing approach implies to consumers that zero-alcohol beverages are to be consumed as additives to, not substitutions for, regular alcoholic beverages,” the paper suggests.
Wright says different types of research are needed to ascertain the effects of these products.
“We need both qualitative research and survey research to understand how, why and in what kinds of situations people are using zero alcohol beverages,” she says.
This research could also include experimental studies on how children view zero-alcohol products, reviews of online and offline advertising, and investigating the effects of these products on people with alcohol-use disorders.
Some of the research is already underway at Menzies, the George Institute and the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research. “There’s a little bit of research happening but we certainly think that there could be more and should be more,” says Wright.
“For instance, the National Drug Strategy Household Survey [which happens] every couple of years could look at including some questions on zero-alcohol products.”
Alcohol consumption is in decline among young people in Australia, but the researchers warn that these drinks may contribute to an uptick. They say we need to know more about the use of zero-alcohol drinks to inform regulations.
“We want to have the research available before we let it go unfettered,” says Wright.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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