Experts from the University of Cambridge have found that in the UK low alcohol options are being marketed in a manner that encourages overconsumption, rather than cutting down overall alcohol intake.

The health effects of regular excessive alcohol consumption are well documented, with alcohol being the fifth leading cause of death and disability across the globe. It is understandable then that lower strength alcohol alternatives have been developed in order to combat rising concerns.

The Cambridge team from the Behaviour and Health Research Unit, led by research associate Dr Milica Vasiljevic, analysed marketing messages for both regular strength and low-alcohol options available from Tesco, ASDA, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons supermarkets, finding that overall the retailers’ marketing strategies failed to encourage a healthy change in lifestyle choices.

Supermarkets’ shady marketing strategies

The study, titled ‘Marketing Messages Accompanying Online Selling of Low/er and Regular Strength Wine and Beer Products in the UK: A Content Analysis’, published in the BMC Public Health journal, did highlight that increased availability of lower alcohol options has the potential of lowering levels of consumption, but had the caveat that these products would have to be marketed as a substitute for higher strength items.

Vasiljevic’s team found that rather than being advertised as a substitute, these items were instead being targeted to more of a casual crowd. “Our findings suggest that products containing less alcohol than regular strength wines and beers may be being marketed to replace soft drinks rather than products with higher alcohol content,” Vasiljevic commented.

Several themes were identified in the supermarkets’ marketing strategies, namely that lower alcohol drinks were marketed for consumption in relation to certain occasions, such as lunchtime or during outdoor events. The drinks were also regularly associated with health, being labelled as a healthier alternative, frequently including images of fruit, and highlighting their low-cal nature.

“Marketing lower strength alcohol wine and beer as being healthier than regular-strength products and suitable for all occasions may paradoxically encourage greater alcohol consumption. Thus, measures apparently intended to benefit public health, such as the wider availability of lower alcohol products may in fact benefit industry to the detriment of health,” explained Vasiljevic

The full impact of alcohol

In 2012, the UK government under its ‘Alcohol Strategy’ pledged the reduction of one billion units of alcohol from the market by 2015. 34 leading wine and beer producers agreed to a reduction of alcohol content under this pledge, known as the ‘Responsibility Deal’.

Offering low strength alternatives was a large part of this pledge, yet according to the Institute of Alcohol Studies in 2016, alcohol harm was still estimated to cost UK society around £21 billion per year. The Office for National Statistics recorded that there were 7,327 alcohol-specific deaths in the UK in the same year.

UK charity Alcohol Concern reported that overall consumption had fallen by 18% since 2004, but noted that alcohol misuse is still the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability for 15-29 year-olds.

It seems clear that offering low-alcohol beverages play a significant role in the reduction of overall consumption, but only if they are used proactively as an alternative to full-strength options. If supermarkets and other retailers continue to market low-alcohol goods in the current manner, the drinks’ benefits become lost in the desire to boost overall sales. Retailers need to recognise the health-related potential of low-alcohol drinks, instead of trying to line their pockets through ill-advised marketing practices.