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New report reveals key features of no- and low-alcohol drinks market

Bottles of non-alcoholic drinks lined up in a row.

Published: 15 January 2024

Adults are increasingly consuming more alcohol-free and low alcohol drinks, new NIHR-funded research finds.

But trends reveal the high cost of these drinks means health inequalities may widen if people from deprived households cannot afford them, researchers say.

A team at Sheffield University published the results today. The first of its kind report provides an in-depth insight into the consumption and sales of beers, ciders, wines, spirits and ready-to-drink beverages (RTDs) such as alcopops and pre-mixed drinks containing less than 1.2% alcohol by volume (ABV).

It is the first in a new series of reports into no- and low-alcohol drinks. These reports aim to help the government and health organisations better understand the role the beverages could play in improving public health.

Its main findings revealed that in 2022: 

  • one-third of adults consumed no/low alcohol drinks at least once in the last year. 18% consumed no/low at least once a month. 10% drank them at least once a week
  • people drinking at risky levels are more likely to consume no/low alcohol drinks regularly than lighter drinkers or non-drinkers. One in four at least once a month compared to 6%of non-drinkers.
  • No/low drinks are more expensive than standard alcoholic beverages. Therefore people in higher social grades were also more likely to consume no/low drinks regularly than those in lower social grades
  • health inequalities may widen if people from more deprived households cannot afford them 
  • major alcohol brands dominate the no/low drinks market and account for 98% of no/low beer sales in shops

Lead author of the report, John Holmes, Professor of Alcohol Policy at the University of Sheffield, said: “It’s good to see evidence that risky drinkers are trying no/low alcohol drinks. However, no/low drinks are often relatively expensive. That’s a problem because alcohol causes the most harm among more deprived groups.  If those groups can’t afford no/low drinks, it might mean we see only small improvements in public health.”

Other findings in the report show the products are increasingly popular in the UK. Sales of no/low drinks grew to £221m in 2021. This figure has continued to rise.  

The proportion of alcohol sales accounted for by no/low alcohol drinks is also rising and was 1.06% of total alcohol sales volume and 0.60% of sales value in 2021.

This proportion was higher in the off-trade (shops and supermarkets) than the on-trade (pubs, restaurants and nightclubs). It was also higher for no/low beer which dominates the no/low drinks market, accounting for 77% of total no/low sales volume.

The report also showed that a small number of brands dominate the no/low market at the moment. The 3 best-selling no/low beer brands in the off-trade accounted for 48% of all no/low beer sales by volume in 2021 and the 10 best-selling brands accounted for 76%.

A total of 98% of no/low beer sales in the off-trade come from products that share branding with a normal alcoholic drink, such as Heineken 0.0 and Heineken. 

Professor Brian Ferguson, Director of NIHR’s Public Health Research Programme (PHR), which funded the study, said: “This report gives reason for cautious optimism that no- and low-alcohol drinks are genuinely being consumed as substitutes to higher alcohol alternatives. But as the authors acknowledge, no- and low-alcohol products remain relatively expensive. Hopefully prices will fall over time as technological advances in the alcohol industry reduce the production cost. I look forward to seeing other findings in due course.”

The report is the first in a series of annual reports researchers will publish between 2023 and 2026.

Read the report in full.

Read more on the study’s project page.

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