Lower alcohol beverages (LABs) are a growing segment of the drinks market as consumer and government concern over alcohol consumption continues to mount. A new paper from the International Center for Alcohol Policies examines how drinks companies have responded to and fostered demand for LABs, and how the marketing of these products can work in harmony with official public health campaigns to promote sensible consumption. Ben Cooper reports.

Lower alcohol beverages (LABs) have been a feature of the drinks market for many years but arguably this sub-sector has never been as active as it is today. While in broad terms this expansion can be attributed to concern over alcohol consumption, a new paper from the industry-sponsored alcohol policy think-tank the International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP) suggests drinks companies have capitalised on the marketing opportunities this has created to foster the growth of the LAB category further.

"Lower alcohol beverages are not a new phenomenon and have been available for many years," the ICAP paper states. "What is new is growing consumer demand for these products, which is providing incentives for producers to expand their brand portfolios. Brand extension and new product innovation, market segmentation, and niche or specialised markets are considerations taken into account by producers in creating drinks with lower ABV levels."

According to ICAP, the robust state of the LAB category shows how drinks companies have successfully expanded their ranges, "reflecting consumers' lifestyle choices, health-consciousness, price sensitivities, as well as tastes".

Indeed, the low-alcohol trend can be seen as part of the broader health and wellness being seen across food and beverage categories. "The increased number of health-conscious consumers around the world has resulted in a higher
demand for low-caloric foods and beverages," ICAP says. "This has led many food and beverage companies to develop and market a variety of products that are 'low-calorie', 'zero trans fats', 'high fibre', and so on. The same trend is apparent in the beverage alcohol market."

The ICAP report goes on to say that taxation issues have also been a factor in the introduction of lower-alcohol variants. This also stems indirectly from concern over alcohol consumption, as raising comparative tax rates on higher-alcohol products has been a frequent recourse for governments concerned about excessive consumption.

Interestingly, while one would imagine that the greater availability of lower alcohol drinks would generally be welcomed by pressure groups, ICAP points out that the marketing of LABs can become controversial, if it is perceived to be promoting the idea that because a product is lower in alcohol you can drink more of it.

Indeed, ICAP states that some alcohol industry self-regulatory marketing codes do not allow the use of strength or ABV as the dominant or core consumer benefit in any product marketing, partly for that reason.

In the same vein, ICAP cites complaints over the marketing of the Coors brand Carling C2, a 2% ABV beer, in the UK. It had been manufactured specifically in recognition of the increasing desire among consumers to drink more responsibly and to extend occasions for consuming a lower alcohol beer.

The fact that the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) did not uphold these complaints indicates that it accepted that the products were offered, as Coors put it, "in recognition of consumers' desire to drink more responsibly". It also suggests that this premise for marketing lower-alcohol drinks carries weight with governmental and regulatory agencies, rather than the notion that consumers perceive them as a licence to drink more.

Today, alcohol harm reduction initiatives generally involve input from all stakeholders, including producers, and ICAP suggests LABs can be a component in an overall harm reduction strategy because they can help to foster responsible consumption.

"Lower alcohol beverages can contribute to decreasing ethanol intake levels and to the promotion of public health purposes," ICAP states. However, the paper points out that because LABs are still alcoholic drinks they will justifiably be viewed by public health organisations as carrying the same social and health risks as other alcohol products, albeit literally to a lower degree.

Nevertheless, ICAP says LABs can be used in initiatives such as server training and anti-drink-driving programmes. As an example of a government agency backing the launch and promotion of low-alcohol drinks, the paper cites collaborative action between the alcohol industry and the Scottish Executive. This included an agreement for individual companies, where appropriate, to "pilot low alcohol alternatives in the Scottish market and use their joint creative energies to market the principle of consuming low alcohol alternatives, within the context of making informed choices and unit awareness".