• Emily Nicholls

Researching the (non)drinking practices of consumers of ‘Alcohol-Free’ drinks

“A nice little life hack”: Researching the (non)drinking practices of consumers of ‘Alcohol-Free’ drinks.

Dr Emily Nicholls, Lecturer in Sociology

In recent years, the availability and diversity of ‘alcohol-free’ (AF) drinks has expanded rapidly, with a number of UK pubs offering a range of options that might be regarded as direct ‘substitutes’ for alcohol. And that’s only scratching the surface of the range of AF beers, spirits and wines available in supermarkets and through online delivery services. With drinking rates continuing to decline amongst young people in the UK, alongside the increasing popularity of ‘temporary abstinence initiatives’ such as Dry January and the emergence of online groups and communities celebrating ‘alcohol-free’ lifestyles, perhaps these new trends should come as no surprise. But how do people in the UK who drink AF products actually incorporate them into their everyday drinking (or non-drinking) routines? And what value and benefits do they associate with the consumption of these ‘alternatives’ to alcohol?

I am currently undertaking a small-scale piece of research funded by the Institute of Alcohol Studies exploring how AF beers and spirits are marketed and consumed in the UK. The fieldwork has included interviews with 15 adults who regularly drink AF products, including both self-identified ‘former drinkers’ (5) and ‘current drinkers’ (10). Whilst the context for drinking AFs might vary (from Emma, a drinker who occasionally had an AF gin and tonic when she didn’t want to feel ‘rough’ the next day to Suzanne, who had been teetotal for 4 years), some key themes emerged across the data around the perceived pleasures and benefits of drinking AF products. The first was around the idea of AF products functioning as a ‘like-for-like’ replacement for alcohol, with many participants valuing products that looked, tasted and simply felt like drinking alcohol, but lacked some of the negative side effects of drinking:

I found alcohol-free beer and I was, “Yes, this is great. It feels like cheating.” (Laughter)… It feels like I'm drinking beer, but not only do I not wake up with a hangover, I am not getting drunk, but I'm still getting relaxed (Rob, mostly sober for 2 years)

Here, Rob describes drinking AF as ‘cheating’ (and elsewhere in the interview as a ‘life hack’) where he can enjoy the taste – and even the psychological effects perhaps – of consuming beer, but without feeling drunk or hungover. Others felt they didn’t really ‘miss’ alcohol because drinking AF products still gave them the things they valued (taste, relaxation, the feeling of a ‘treat’) whilst also allowing them to feel ‘sharper’ or ‘more productive’ the next day.

Another key theme was around ‘fitting in’:

If you are with a group of friends that are drinking a bottle of prosecco, to sit there with a glass of water or squash, it would just feel so separate. Whereas, I had all my bridesmaids around at the weekend and they were all drinking prosecco and I had Nozeco. There was no difference. You do feel part of it (Hannah, sober for 1 month)

Like Hannah, many other participants felt AF options offered them a way to feel included when socialising with drinkers in particular, and sometimes a way to blend in and ‘pass’ as a drinker in social settings. A final theme to note was around the perceived benefits to mental and physical health that participants associated with replacing alcoholic drinks with AF alternatives for either the short or longer-term:

I decided that I’m going to take control of myself, my mental health, and my health and everything. I’ve gone on a fitness mission since then... Right now, I don’t drink at all. It’s for the period until I reach my fitness goal (Zara, temporarily not drinking)

As can be seen from the data, participants really valued the increased choice that comes with an expanding range of AF options, and celebrated the ability to drink something that mimics alcohol in terms of taste and feel but without what they perceived to be the negative consequences of drinking. However, participants also recognised some of the tensions in this expanding market. For example, the growth of ‘AF’ options doesn’t necessarily challenge wider social and cultural norms (which continue to position drinking as normalised and expected). The promotion of AF products may also allow the Alcohol Industry to promote alcoholic options ‘by stealth’ (indeed, participants noted how similar a bottle of Heineken Zero looks to what they called a ‘normal’ Heineken). Whilst the wider, long-term effects of the expanding market remain a little unclear, we can probably say with some confidence that the ‘AF’ market isn’t going anywhere, and that AF options may continue to hold appeal to (some!) drinkers and non-drinkers alike. I am confident my participants would raise a glass to that!

Pseudonyms have been used in the discussion of findings.

For more information about the research please contact Emily on emily.nicholls@york.ac.uk

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