Helping or hindering – alcohol in disguise
Alcohol free drinks are being promoted as healthy and safe alternatives to full strength alcohol, but with no regulatory restrictions on their consumption or promotion, what impact are they really having on young Australians?
Zero-alcohol drinks (<0.5% alcohol) resemble alcohol in appearance and taste and are often closely linked to a parent alcohol brand yet there are currently no age or marketing restrictions on these drinks, and they are freely promoted to all age groups, including young people.
In an Australian first, and funded by the Channel 7 Children’s Research Foundation, Flinders University researchers will examine the impact of the rapidly growing zero-alcohol drinks market on young people’s perceptions of alcohol to determine if it needs tighter regulation.
The $40,000 project will investigate the impact of promoting and using zero-alcohol drinks on young people’s perceptions and behaviour towards full strength alcohol and whether they act as a gateway to alcohol use or alcohol brand loyalty.
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 15–24-year-olds in Australia, contributing 14% of the disease burden among males and 6% among females.
Alcohol consumption is particularly harmful for adolescents due to its neurodevelopmental impacts, and alcohol consumption in adolescence is associated with a plethora of harms including increased risk of injury, mental health harms, risky sexual behaviour, and increased likelihood of developing harmful patterns of drinking in adulthood.
It is a public health imperative to delay or stop the use of alcohol among adolescents and sustain reductions in risky consumption, says lead researcher Dr Ashlea Bartram from the College of Medicine and Public Health.
“The zero-alcohol drinks market is rapidly growing and widely promoted in South Australia, especially in supermarkets and other places freely accessible by children, where traditional alcohol sales are restricted.
“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.
“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’),” says Dr Bartram.
“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 says.
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 toward the parent alcohol brand, as well as to alcohol products more generally.
“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.
Dr Bartram says 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 adds.
Acknowledgements: The project is being supported by funding from Channel 7 Children’s Research Foundation.
For more information contact:
Dr Ashlea Bartram, College of Medicine and Public Health, Flinders University
Tel: +61 8 7221 8221 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sally Lauder, Media Advisor, Flinders University