Zero alcohol dispute over "gateway drink" claims
The debate over the positioning of zero-alcohol beverage options has continued this week after a journal article suggested that no-alcohol options could be “gateway” drinks.
Early stage researchers at the Menzies School of Health Research published the paper this week in the Drug and Alcohol Review which provides a commentary on the rise of no-alcohol beverages and its potential use cases.
The commentary highlights that many zero-alcohol products, like Carlton Zero, Great Northern Zero or Heineken 0.0 which faced ABAC recently, are versions of the parent alcohol brand, which “provides myriad new opportunities for alcohol companies to display their branding and packaging to bolster brand recognition and allegiance”.
The three-page paper compared zero-alcohol beverages to e-cigarettes, saying they were appealing to younger people and there was an assumption they were less harmful to health. It said children would be unable to tell the difference between an alcoholic and a non-alcoholic version.
“While the flavour issue is largely irrelevant to zero-alcohol beverages because they are intended to mimic the taste of alcoholic beverages, zero-alcohol products are more readily available and often cheaper than alcoholic beverages,” the report said.
“It is currently unclear whether the use of zero-alcohol beverages by youth in Australia is either facilitated or accepted by parents, but it is likely it would be considered more acceptable and less harmful to health as they are legal for purchase by under 18s and sold outside of liquor stores.”
It acknowledged that while alcohol use is at an all-time low amongst young people in Australia generally, zero-alcohol beverages in the market “could perpetuate the cultural myth that an alcohol-type beverage is required for social conformity”.
Alcohol Beverages Australia CEO Andrew Wilsmore, responded to the report, saying that there has been a massive generational change when it came to drinking habits.
“Parental influences are a significant component of that cultural change, and with zero-alcohol product sales doubling in the last year and COVID restrictions seeing more Australians choose healthier lifestyle options, it is likely these positive trends will only continue among our younger generations,” he said.
“Clearly there is no link between ‘exposure’ and adverse outcomes in young people’s drinking alcohol, as there are no significant differences in harmful youth drinking from those States and Territories that do* allow the sale of beer, wine and spirits within supermarkets against those that prohibit their sale.”
Read both statements below.
Media release from the Menzies School of Health Research.
Zero-alcohol beverages are becoming increasingly popular in Australia with major brands now stocked on supermarket shelves. Consumption of zero-alcohol products increased by 2.9 per cent in 2020 and is expected to increase by 31 per cent by 2024.
A new paper in the Drug and Alcohol Review by Menzies School of Health Research (Menzies) and The George Institute for Global Health (George Institute) raises questions about if these beverages are giving Australia’s young people a taste for alcohol.
Menzies and George Institute researcher and lead author Mia Miller said that zero-alcohol beverages are often packaged identically to alcoholic beverages and can be indistinguishable in taste.
“The sale of zero-alcohol beverages in supermarkets means young people will be more frequently exposed to alcohol companies’ branding and logos. Alcohol advertising exposure has been shown to increase early initiation of alcohol use, and increased alcohol use. It can also foster brand allegiance, a factor that has been shown to lead to increased chances of young people consuming alcohol,” said Miller.
“There is currently not enough research to support the sale of zero-alcohol beverages in supermarkets. 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.”
Miller says that further research is needed to assess whether the ease of availability of zero alcohol beverages may lead to a gateway effect, where children who consume them would
be more likely to consume alcoholic beverages underage.
“We have seen a significant decline in alcohol consumption amongst young people in Australia. We do not want to reverse these wins by having products available for sale to
minors that taste and look like regular alcohol products,” said Miller.
“The alcohol industry is frequently promoting zero-alcohol beverages as suitable for drinking while driving, while working out at the gym or even when pregnant. We do not know the potential impact on children if they see their parents drinking a zero-alcohol beer in the car as it is unlikely that they can distinguish between a zero-alcohol beer and a regular alcoholic one.”
View the Zero-alcohol beverages: Harm-minimisation tool or gateway drink? Commentary here https://www.doi.org/10.1111/dar.13359.
Alcohol Beverages Australia CEO Andrew Wilsmore, responded to the report, saying:
“Australians are to be commended for their sensible approach to enjoying a beer, wine or spirit with per capita consumption at 50 year lows and drinking in moderation the new cultural norm.
“A massive generational change has taken place in Australia, particularly among our young people who are delaying the age of their first drink – from 14 years in 2001 to 16 years in 2019; and 14-17 year olds increasingly abstaining from alcohol – from 31.8% in 2001 to 72.5% abstaining in 2019.
“Parental influences are a significant component of that cultural change, and with zero-alcohol product sales doubling in the last year and covid restrictions seeing more Australians choose healthier lifestyle options, it is likely these positive trends will only continue among our younger generations.
“Zero-alcohol sales of beer, wine and spirits in supermarkets are nothing new and have been part of the shopping experience for generations of Australians due to liquor licensing laws banning the sale of alcohol in supermarkets in a number of States and Territories.
“Clearly there is no link between ‘exposure’ and adverse outcomes in young people’s drinking alcohol, as there are no significant differences in harmful youth drinking from those States and Territories that do* allow the sale of beer, wine and spirits within supermarkets against those that prohibit their sale.
[*Victoria, ACT, and the Northern Territory (and most other countries in the world) allow alcohol to be sold in supermarkets. NSW also allows sale when attached to the supermarket in a specially designated licensed area]
“This ‘research’ reads more like personal opinion and assertions, and simply does not reflect the lived reality for the majority of Australians.”