Why low alcohol messages may not be the answer…
Over the last few years a lot of the alcohol research I have been involved in has been looking at helping people make better decisions about their alcohol consumption. Drinking too much has massive implication for society – it contributes to a generally high prevalence of people being overweight (alcohol is highly calorific) and people consuming alcohol takes a toll on society – both in terms of long term health care costs (i.e. people being at increased risk of heart and liver disease) but also in terms of alcohol related violence. Public health campaigns encouraging us to drink responsibly have met with limited success, and it’s not a problem that will go away. One possible way we could be approach this is by making low alcohol wines and beers more widely available – giving people a choice of a less calorific, less intoxicating drink. But would this work? Me and some colleagues from LSBU’s Centre for Addictive Behaviours Research teamed up with Cambridge University’s Behaviour and Health Research Unit to start finding out out…
In our study, 264 weekly wine and beer drinkers were placed into one of three groups to taste test drinks in LSBU’s bar-laboratory (this is a cool facility – it’s a lab built to look like a real pub!) . The drinks varied only in the label displayed. In one group participants taste-tested drinks labelled ‘Super Low’ and 4%ABV (alcohol by volume) for wine or 1%ABV for beer. In another group the drinks were labelled ‘Low’ and 8%ABV for wine or 3%ABV for beer. In the final group participants taste-tested drinks labelled 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 average consumption of drinks labelled ‘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. In summary- people drank more of the wine and beers they thought was low alcohol, and the lower the advertised strength, the more they drank!
Why may this happen?
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen these sorts of ‘rebound’ effects. In the evidence base around food, it’s well recognised that we consume more of ‘low fat’ and ‘low sugar’ foods – because we ‘license’ ourselves to consume more. Moreover, if people are looking for a specific effect from alcohol (be more relaxed etc) they may increase their ‘dose’ of low alcohol drinks to achieve this…
What’s the take home message?
One (or even two, this paper is part of a series of studies) sets of findings cannot be generalised too much, but our research suggets that we should be cautious about using low alcohol labelling and products – they may not work, or they may even make things worse! Back to the drawing board…..
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The article detailing this research can be found in the APA journal Health Psychology – the project was led by Miki Vasiljevic and I, as part of a larger project led by Prof. Thersea Marteau, funded by the UK Department of Health
Vasiljevic M, Couturier DL, Frings D, Moss AC, Albery IP, Marteau TM. (2018). ‘Impact of lower strength alcohol labeling on consumption: A randomized controlled trial‘. Health Psychology