Lower strength wine and beer could lead to increased alcohol consumption because supermarkets and producers are advertising them as an alternative to soft drinks, according to a study.
The increasing availability of lower strength products, which are more likely to be marketed as suitable for drinking on any occasion or every day, may simply increase the amount of alcohol people consume, researchers led by the University of Cambridge concluded.
They found lower strength wines and beers sold in UK supermarkets were not being actively marketed as alternatives to regular strength products “and thus may not be promoting healthier drinking habits in consumers”, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Public Health.
Instead, messages describe them as “lunchtime treats” or “perfect for all occasions”, with lower strength beer described as suitable for drinking on additional occasions such as sports events “to refresh thirsty sportsmen and women”.
Marketing for lower strength wines and beers was also more likely to include text or images associated with health, information about calorie and carbohydrate content and images of fruit.
Dr Milica Vasiljevic, corresponding author of the study, 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.
“Our findings suggest that 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.”
The authors compared messages on 86 web pages advertising 41 lower strength wines and 48 web pages marketing 16 lower strength beers, finding that messages about occasions, alcohol content and health were more often present for lower strength alcohol products than for regular strength products.
They did not find any messages about drinking less or harm associated with alcohol consumption.
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.”
A spokeswoman for the Portman Group – a trade body which includes manufacturers Carlsberg, Diageo Great Britain and InBev UK, said: “I’m sure most people would agree that the phenomenal growth in innovative and great tasting low and no-alcohol drinks is a good thing and will be entirely baffled by another academic study that seems to be suggesting otherwise.”