By Dr James Nicholls - Director of Research and Policy Development, Alcohol Concern / Alcohol Research UK

Alcohol-free drinks used to have a poor reputation – and rightly so. There was often little choice, and what there was bore only a faint resemblance to normal-strength versions. I still recall a warm bottle of Kaliber that I left, unfinished, at a pub near Sheffield many years ago. It is not a great memory.

In recent years, however, all that has changed. Low and no-alcohol drinks are now one of the most dynamic sectors of the market; UK sales of low alcohol and alcohol-free beers increased by 17% in 2017 alone; and during Dry January 2018 Tesco reported that demand for low alcohol beer, wine and spirits increased by more than 100% compared to January 2017.

Far from a token alternative to the ‘real’ version, newer products are increasingly viewed as great drinks in their own right. A stout by the low alcohol brewer Big Drop even won Silver in the World Beer Awards against full strength challengers. (Personally, I think their pale ale is even better…)

This week, working with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Harm and Club Soda, we organised a tasting event at the House of Commons, which introduced MPs to a range of these products. It was not a typical Parliamentary meeting, that’s for certain. MPs, producers, journalists, bloggers and Parliamentary staff mingled over drinks, compared favourites, chatted to strangers – in fact, much of what you would expect in a social occasion containing alcohol, but with even the most enthusiastic attendees drinking only a fraction of a single unit at the very most.

Members of the Alcohol Concern / Alcohol Research UK team with Fiona Bruce MP and Laura Willoughby MBE from Club Soda at the event

The event had a serious purpose, however. Low alcohol and alcohol-free products have the potential to play an important role in behaviour change for people looking to cut down their drinking -though we need more research on this. What we do know is that that the current labelling regulations for these products are confusing, outmoded and unhelpful.

The current regulations say that:

  •  An alcohol-free drink is less than 0.05% ABV
  • A low alcohol drink is less than 1.2% ABV
  • A ‘de-alcoholised’ drink has had the alcohol removed, and is less than 0.5% ABV
  • The term ‘non-alcoholic’ should not be used … except for communion wine!

If you find that confusing, you are not alone.  Speaking at the event, one brewer said: “I am a trained lawyer, but I had to pay another lawyer to explain the regulations to me”.

Alongside Club Soda, we recently polled consumers who have purchased low alcohol and alcohol-free drinks. Among these, there was enormous uncertainty and diversity of opinion as to what ‘no alcohol’, ‘low alcohol’ and ‘alcohol-free’ meant, or should mean.[1]

These confused regulations pose difficulties for brewers, which may discourage some from getting into the low-alcohol market. They also have implications for retailers, with some pubs and bars reporting that they are not comfortable stocking these drinks due to the uncertainty over labelling and legal status. This is a far cry from parts of Europe, where alcohol-free options are standard.

What is more, the existing regulations are due to expire in December this year – and it is far from clear what their replacement will be.[2] The Department of Health and Social Care is meant to be leading this policy area, but there is a danger that if things don’t move quickly we will end up with no regulations at all – or just a voluntary code, which will leave everyone uncertain.

But we are hoping to ensure that isn’t the case. At Wednesday’s event a number of MPs joined us in our call for new, clear regulation. With consumers, brewers, pubs, bars and groups like ours and Club Soda on the same page, it’s obvious: we need a common-sense, consistent labelling regulations for low alcohol and alcohol-free drinks, and we need it as soon as possible. It’s a win all round.

Would you like to see better regulations around the labelling of alcohol alternatives? You can help make a difference. Contact your MP and ask them to email Alcohol Concern to lend their support, or tweet using the hashtag #ClarityForConsumers.

[1] Survey carried out between 7th and 26th February 2018 via SurveyMonkey. It was sent to all members of the Facebook Dry January page and all Club Soda members. Of 556 respondents, 530 reported they had purchased alcohol-free drinks.

[2] It's complicated, but these products are currently regulated by the Food Labelling Regulations 1996. Most of these regulations were replaced under the Food Information Regulations 2014. However, the rules on alcohol-free labels were extended for a further four years to allow time for discussion. This extension comes to an end in December 2018. Nothing about this issue is simple!