Marketing of lower strength alcohol 'may actually increase boozing'

Low alcohol beers and wines are being promoted as replacements for soft drinks rather than booze - fuelling binge drinking, warns new research.

The study suggests low alcohol tipples are being cleverly marketed as a healthy option and linked to a busy social lifestyle - encouraging more booze consumption rather than less.

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The study of supermarkets' online websites found low strength wines were likely to be plugged as suitable for consumption at any time or every day.

Messages for the wines described them as "lunchtime treats" or "perfect for all occasions".

Low strength beer tended to be linked to sport - to "refresh thirsty sportsmen and women."

Both also included text or images associated with health, information about calorie and carbohydrate content - and images of fruit.

Soft drink substitute

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Corresponding author Dr Milica Vasiljevic, of Cambridge University, said: "Our findings suggest products containing less alcohol than regular strength wines and beers may be being marketed to replace soft drinks rather than products with higher alcohol content.

"Marketing lower strength alcohol wine and beer as being healthier than regular strength products and suitable for all occasions may paradoxically encourage greater alcohol consumption.

"Thus, measures apparently intended to benefit public health, such as the wider availability of lower alcohol products may in fact benefit industry to the detriment of health."

His team analysed marketing on producers' and retailers' websites for lower and regular strength wines and beers sold online by the 'big four' supermarkets Tesco, ASDA, Sainsbury's and Morrisons.

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They found low-strength drinks aren't being actively marketed as alternatives to the others - so may not be promoting healthier habits.

The study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, follows research last year that placed Britons second only to the Portuguese in a European table of binge drinkers.

Low-strength options

Dr Vasiljevic said: "Increased availability of lower strength alcohol products has the potential to reduce alcohol consumption if consumers select these products instead of ones with higher alcohol content.

"If not, they may simply increase the number of occasions on which people drink alcohol."

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The researchers compared 86 and 48 web pages marketing 41 and 16 lower strength wines and beers respectively with the same number featuring comparable regular strength products.

The former products were defined as containing less than 8.5 per cent alcohol for wine and 2.8 per cent for beer and the latter above these amounts by volume (ABV) - the standard measure of how much is contained.

The marketing had four main themes - occasions, health-related, alcohol content and taste.

Those about occasions, alcohol content and health were more often present for the low alcohol products. No messages about drinking less or alcohol associated harms were identified.

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The researchers said the extent to which their findings can be generalised to billboards or social media is limited.

Dr Vasiljevic said: "Future studies could usefully extend the present findings by including other marketing platforms - and going beyond the UK context to examine the marketing messages associated with lower and regular strength wines and beers in other countries."

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