Foodservice Footprint Fizz2-2 What price a healthier drop? Drinks Sector News Out of Home News Analysis

What price a healthier drop?

Pubs and policymakers have high expectations for low and no-alcohol drinks but price remains a problem. David Burrows reports.

Popular plonk. One in three adults consumed no/low drinks at least once in 2022, and of these, more than half consumed them more regularly. Almost one in five (18%) of adults drank no/low-alcohol drinks at least once a month, and 10% did so at least once a week.

Unique. The findings are from a “first of its kind report” produced by researchers at the University of Sheffield and funded by the Department of Health and Social Care through the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR). The report is the first in a series designed to help the government and health organisations better understand the role low/no-alcohol beverages could play in improving public health. 

Optimistic. “This report gives reason for cautious optimism that no and low-alcohol drinks are genuinely being consumed as substitutes to higher alcohol alternatives,” said Professor Brian Ferguson, director of NIHR’s public health research programme. “But as the authors acknowledge, no and low alcohol products remain relatively expensive. Hopefully prices will fall over time as technological advances in the alcohol industry reduce the production cost.”

Fine forecasts. Half of the UK adult population say they have bought a no/low-alcohol product in the past, according to separate research by analysts ISWR. This helped boost no/low-alcohol volume consumption by 9% in 2022 compared to 2021. The no/low-alcohol category now has a volume share of nearly 3% of the UK’s total beverage alcohol market. The market for the drinks is expected to see volume growth at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 7% from 2022-2026. But it wouldn’t hurt if it rose further and faster.

Hangover. A fifth of adults in England currently drink above the low-risk guidelines of 14 units of alcohol per week – significantly increasing their risk of ill-health, poorer quality of life and even premature death. 

Cure? No/low drinks could lead to large reductions in alcohol-related harm if people drink them instead of standard alcoholic drinks. Which is why the UK government is committed to encouraging consumption of low and no-alcohol drinks as a central part of its public health policies.

Risky revellers. The academics from Sheffield found that, encouragingly, low/no-alcohol drinks are proving increasingly popular, including amongst so-called ‘risky’ drinkers (This is based on the Audit-C questionnaire, a three-question screening test to identify people at risk from their drinking; those scoring more than four on the test are defined as risky drinkers). One in four risky drinkers consumed no/low-alcohol drinks at least once a month compared to one in five non-risky drinkers and 6% of non-drinkers.  

The price isn’t right. People in higher social grades were also more likely to consume no/low drinks regularly than those in lower social grades. “That’s a problem because alcohol causes the most harm among more deprived groups,” explained lead author, John Holmes, professor of alcohol policy at the University of Sheffield. “If those groups can’t afford no/low drinks, it might mean we see only small improvements in public health.”

Scotland the brave. Worth noting is that Scotland this month announced plans to increase the minimum price per unit of alcohol by 15p to 65p. Minimum unit pricing (MUP) legislation is due to expire on April 30th this year unless the Scottish parliament votes to keep it. The Scottish government has confirmed it plans to extend the legislation and increase the MUP by 15p to counteract the effects of inflation. The proposal will now go before parliament for approval and will take effect on September 30th 2024 if it is agreed.

While in England. Well, it is possible to drink the low-risk weekly guideline of 14 units for  less than the price of a cup of coffee from many high street coffee chains, according to the Alcohol Health Alliance.

Small is big. The Sheffield report showed that a small number of brands dominate the no/low market at the moment. The three best-selling no/low beer brands in the off-trade accounted for 48% of all no/low beer sales by volume in 2021 and the 10 best-selling brands accounted for 76%. 

But big is still big. A total of 98% of no/low beer sales in the off-trade come from products that share branding with a normal alcoholic drink, such as Heineken 0.0 and Heineken.  That’s a problem because:  “No/low drinks from well-known brands might be encouraging people to try these less risky products, but this shared branding might also harm public health by promoting normal alcoholic drinks,” said co-author Luke Wilson from the University of Sheffield’s School of Medicine and Population Health.

Be patient. Sheffield’s research provides an in-depth insight into the consumption and sales of beers, ciders, wines, spirits and ready-to-drink beverages (RTDs) such as alcopops and pre-mixed drinks containing less than 1.2% alcohol by volume (ABV). The full results won’t be available until the summer, but the report will be updated every year until 2026.