Alcohol is the fifth leading cause of disease and premature death both in the UK and globally. Reducing consumption of alcohol is a public health priority in many countries. In the UK, as part of a range of steps to reduce overall alcohol consumption, policymakers are currently interested in allowing the industry to label a wider range of alcohol products as lower in alcohol.
‘Alcoholic drinks such as wines and beers labeled as lower in alcohol strength encourage people to drink more alcohol. Drinking more alcohol is the fifth leading cause of disease and early death in the UK and globally.’
Proposed legislative changes include extending the variety of terms that could be used to denote lower alcohol content, and extending the strength limit to include products lower than the current average on the market (12.9% ABV for wine and 4.2% ABV for beer*).
"For lower strength alcohol products to reduce consumption, consumers will need to select them in place of equal volumes of higher strength products," says Dr. Milica Vasiljevic from the University of Cambridge. "But what if the lower strength products enable people to feel they can consume more?"
In this study, two-hundred and sixty-four weekly wine and beer drinkers - sampled from a representative panel of the general population of England - were randomized to one of three groups to taste test drinks in a laboratory designed to mimic a bar environment. The drinks varied only in the label displayed. In one group participants, taste-tested drinks labeled 'Super Low' and '4%ABV' for wine or '1%ABV' for beer. In another group, the drinks were labeled 'Low' and '8%ABV' for wine or '3%ABV' for beer. In the final group participants taste-tested drinks labeled with no verbal descriptors of strength, but displaying the average strength on the market - wine ('12.9%ABV') or beer ('4.2%ABV').
The results showed the total amount of drink consumed increased as the label on the drink denoted successively lower alcohol strength. The mean consumption of drinks labeled 'Super Low' was 214ml, compared with 177ml for regular (unlabelled) drinks. Individual differences in drinking patterns and socio-demographic indicators did not affect these results.
"Labelling lower strength alcohol may sound like a good idea if it encourages people to switch drinks, but our study suggests it may paradoxically encourage people to drink more," says Professor Theresa Marteau, senior author and Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit.
While this study shows that people may drink more if drinks are labeled as lower in strength, the researchers do not yet know if this effect is sufficient to result in the consumption of more units of alcohol overall from lower strength alcohol drinks. Furthermore, participants in this study were tested in a bar-laboratory setting. To learn more about the impact of lower strength alcohol labeling, research in real-world settings is needed.
The study was funded by the Department of Health.