What's the impact of promoting and using zero alcohol drinks?

Tuesday, 19 December, 2023

What's the impact of promoting and using zero alcohol drinks?

An AU$40,000 South Australian project is set to investigate the impact of promoting and using zero-alcohol drinks on young people’s perceptions and behaviour.

Zero alcohol drinks (<0.5% alcohol) resemble alcohol in appearance and taste and are often closely linked to a parent alcohol brand, but there are currently no age, marketing or regulatory restrictions on these drinks, and they are freely promoted to all age groups, including young people.

Researchers from Flinders University are analysing the impact of this rapidly growing market to determine if it needs tighter regulation. Alcohol is a Class 1 carcinogen, and any amount of alcohol increases the risk of seven types of cancer with risk increasing with higher levels of use. It is also one of the leading individual risk factors for death and disability among 15- to 24-year-olds in Australia, contributing 14% of the disease burden among males and 6% among females, according to the university.

It is a public health imperative to delay or stop the use of alcohol among adolescents and sustain reductions in risky consumption, said lead researcher Dr Ashlea Bartram from the College of Medicine and Public Health, Flinders University.

“Parents, policymakers, businesses and researchers are concerned that zero alcohol drinks — particularly those that share a brand and packaging look and feel with alcoholic drinks — may work as alcohol advertising in disguise, undermining regulations aimed at limiting children’s exposure to alcohol products and promotions, and potentially acting as a gateway to alcohol and its associated harms.

Promotions and perceptions

“We want to know the extent to which exposure to zero alcohol products and promotions affects adolescent children’s perceptions of alcoholic drinks. Whether these effects differ between zero alcohol drinks featuring brands used on alcoholic drinks (‘brand extension’) and those featuring brands that are unique to zero alcohol drinks (‘unique brands’),” Bartram said.

“There is a well-established association between frequency of alcohol advertisement exposure and alcohol consumption among adolescents and the effects of exposure to alcohol advertising are cumulative: the more alcohol advertising a young person is exposed to, the more alcohol they consume,” she said.

Drinks with less than 0.5% alcohol

There are multiple regulations that reduce children’s exposure to alcohol and the advertising of alcohol-containing drinks in South Australia but drinks that have less than 0.5% alcohol by volume are not currently covered by existing alcohol regulations and instead are regulated as soft drinks under Food Standards Australia New Zealand Code 2.6.2.

“The rise of zero alcohol drinks presents a pressing challenge for health professionals and policymakers. Whilst they may encourage substitution from alcoholic drinks to zero alcohol drinks among adults and young people who already drink, evidence suggests that these drinks and their promotions are likely to influence attitudes and consumption intentions towards the parent alcohol brand, as well as to alcohol products more generally.

Public health consequences

“There have been calls to extend regulations on alcohol advertising and availability to cover zero alcohol drinks, particularly those using brand extensions. However, there is currently a lack of research into the public health consequences of increasing the availability and promotion of zero alcohol drinks, which is hampering policymakers’ capacity to act,” Bartram said.

Bartram said that it is critical to investigate the impacts of exposure to these zero alcohol products and promotions on adolescents now, while the market is in an early phase of rapid growth, so that policymakers have the evidence to regulate these products appropriately.

“How to regulate these drinks is one of the most critical emerging issues in alcohol policy both locally and globally. Our project will provide an initial answer to policymakers to guide the regulation of zero alcohol products to protect children from alcohol-related harms,” she said.

The project is being supported by funding from the Channel 7 Children’s Research Foundation.

Image credit: iStock.com/Dariia Chernenko

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