Should zero-alcohol products be sold in supermarkets?

Consumption of zero-alcohol products increased by 2.9% in Australia in 2020 and is expected to rise by 31% by 2024. Supermarket chains have responded to consumer demand by expanding their ranges, but experts at odds over whether it’s a positive step.

Woolworths has stocked a limited range of alcohol-free wines and beer for decades, but recently increased its offering to include more than 30 different products containing low or zero alcohol content.

A new paper in the Drug and Alcohol Review by Menzies School of Health Research (Menzies) and The George Institute for Global Health (George Institute) is questioning whether these beverages are giving Australia’s young people a taste for alcohol.

Menzies and George Institute researcher and lead author Mia Miller said that zero-alcohol beverages are often packaged identically to alcoholic beverages and can be indistinguishable in taste.

“The sale of zero-alcohol beverages in supermarkets means young people will be more frequently exposed to alcohol companies’ branding and logos,” she said. “Alcohol advertising exposure has been shown to increase early initiation of alcohol use, and increased alcohol use. It can also foster brand allegiance, a factor that has been shown to lead to increased chances of young people consuming alcohol.

“There is currently not enough research to support the sale of zero-alcohol beverages in supermarkets. Children and young people may be buying these products from their local store, some of which do contain small amounts of alcohol. But more importantly, researchers do not yet know what impact consuming zero-alcohol beverages in childhood will have on
subsequent alcohol use.”

Andrew Wilsmore

However, Alcohol Beverages Australia CEO Andrew Wilsmore (above) said Australians should be commended for buying zero-alcohol beer, wine and spirits, with the country’s per capita consumption at a 50-year low and drinking in moderation becoming the new cultural norm.

“A massive generational change has taken place in Australia, particularly among our young people who are delaying the age of their first drink – from 14 years in 2001 to 16 years in 2019; and 14-17 year olds increasingly abstaining from alcohol – from 31.8% in 2001 to 72.5% abstaining in 2019,” he said.

“Parental influences are a significant component of that cultural change, and with zero-alcohol product sales doubling in the last year and COVID restrictions seeing more Australians choose healthier lifestyle options, it is likely these positive trends will only continue among our younger generations.

“Zero-alcohol sales of beer, wine and spirits in supermarkets are nothing new and have been part of the shopping experience for generations of Australians due to liquor licensing laws banning the sale of alcohol in supermarkets in a number of States and Territories.

“Clearly there is no link between ‘exposure’ and adverse outcomes in young people’s drinking alcohol, as there are no significant differences in harmful youth drinking from those States and Territories that do* allow the sale of beer, wine and spirits within supermarkets against those that prohibit their sale.

“Victoria, ACT, and the Northern Territory (and most other countries in the world) allow alcohol to be sold in supermarkets. NSW also allows sale when attached to the supermarket in a specially designated licensed area]

“This ‘research’ reads more like personal opinion and assertions, and simply does not reflect the lived reality for the majority of Australians.”

BP Botany’s zero alcohol selection.

Miller maintains that further research is needed to assess whether the ease of availability of zero-alcohol beverages may lead to a gateway effect, where children who consume them would be more likely to consume alcoholic beverages underage.

“We have seen a significant decline in alcohol consumption among young people in Australia,” she said. “We do not want to reverse these wins by having products available for sale to minors that taste and look like regular alcohol products.”

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