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Healthy alcohol? Don’t fall for the marketing spin

Is there such a thing as healthy alcohol?

The alcohol industry would like us to believe so, and no doubt so would many drinkers. Regardless of what we would like to believe, alcohol products are generally unhealthy, be it for your waistline or your risk of serious disease or injury.

Alcohol industry analysts have observed an increased interest in health and wellness among consumers in Australia, particularly young people. So, how can alcohol companies leverage off this perceived health trend, in light of declining alcohol use in Australia?

Our research, published in the journal Public Health Research and Practice, examines how the alcohol industry has responded to a perceived increase in health consciousness among consumers, considers policy implications and provides recommendations to address supposedly healthier alcohol products.

It shows how alcohol companies are developing and marketing their products to appear as healthier to tap into the perceived consumer trend toward living healthier lifestyles.

Views of alcohol company executives

Our research found that alcohol company executives viewed increased health consciousness among consumers as an opportunity for the sector to innovate and grow their sales.

Managing Director of Brown-Forman, Michael McShane, summed up the executives’ views well when he said, “The health and wellness trend is expected to be one of the prime drivers of innovation in 2016.”

Scott Marshall, CEO of Australian Liquor Marketers, said, “With health and wellbeing also an ongoing focus for consumers into 2016, the development of products that cater to the health conscious consumer like the rise of low carb beers, low calorie wines, low sugar and gluten free products will continue to play a role across categories.”

In 2017, Leah Grinter, Director of Marketing at Thirsty Camel said, “This year we have seen the wider consumer trend of health and wellness transfer to the liquor industry with better for you, sugar free and preservative free beverages becoming increasingly popular.”

New product developments

Product developments and campaigns over the past few years confirm that producing supposedly healthier or ‘better for you’ alcohol products was of high priority to alcohol companies.

We identified large campaigns designed to promote beer as “99.9% sugar free” and an alcohol ad that looks “more like a Nike ad than a beer ad”.

Wine producers developed low-alcohol and organic wines that are designed to appeal to health conscious women.

The ready-to-drink sector developed products made with “natural”, “pure” and other supposedly healthier ingredients, and sugar-free varieties of products.

One product, for example, is made with “purified water” and “infused with electrolytes”; its claims include “no sugar”, “no carbs”, “no colours” and “natural flavours”.

Are these products healthier?

Unfortunately, these products are not genuinely healthier and they carry all the risks associated with the alcohol component of alcohol products, based on the volume of alcohol they contain and the associated calories.

These products and the way they are advertised are cause for concern as there could be significant implications for the way they are seen by consumers.

Recent research from Cancer Council Victoria showed that more than one in three men (35 percent) and one in five women (22 percent) incorrectly think low-carb beer is healthy.

Research from the tobacco and food fields shows that consumers view food with a health claim as healthier than the same products without a claim; this is known as a health halo effect.

Consumers may also use more of the product advertised as healthier as they may believe that there are fewer health consequences or risks.

Regulatory and policy environment

Australia’s regulatory environment is failing to stop some alcohol products from being promoted as supposedly healthier.

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand specify that a nutrition or content claim cannot be made about alcohol, other than a claim about energy, carbohydrates or gluten. However, claims like “fresh”, “pure” or “natural” are not considered nutrition or content claims and are not regulated.

The alcohol industry’s self-regulatory advertising system, the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) Scheme does not restrict health claims specifically, and complaints regarding products’ association with health have been dismissed by the ABAC Adjudication Panel due to narrow interpretations of the Code.

Inadequacies with industry self-regulation are a global concern. A global beverage industry publication, Just Drinks, has identified that UK self-regulatory codes and European legislation prohibit the use of health claims, but not related “healthy cues”, and that alcohol products can be promoted as healthful, without breaching regulations:

Calorie content is only an indicator of a product’s healthy credentials, and the presence of natural ingredients is only a proxy for healthfulness.

But, as such, both are a long way from conflicting with codes restricting alcohol brands from making health claims, and the scope for using more such proxies for healthfulness is considerable.”

What can we do about this?

Health experts recommend reforms to alcohol marketing regulation that include strong, independent, legislated controls on all forms of alcohol marketing and promotion, and prescribe permitted alcohol marketing content.

Governments should legislate against alcohol companies using health-related concepts, as part of these broader legislated controls on alcohol marketing.

This post was first published on Croakey.

Danica Keric

Danica Keric is a Senior Research Officer for the Alcohol Programs Team at the Public Health Advocacy Institute of WA.

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