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Slightly weaker beer could reduce alcohol's harm while benefiting industry: addiction experts

When people down weaker beer, they're unlikely to consume more. It's a strategy Canadian addiction researchers say could reduce the harmful effects of alcohol on society while still benefiting the industry.

Policy paper makes push for why the public health field should keep open mind to industry's own move

Alcohol producers say they're already reducing the ethanol content of beer. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty)

When people down weaker beer, they're unlikely to consume more. It's a strategy Canadian addiction researchers say could reduce the harmful effects of alcohol on society while still benefiting the industry.

Alcohol-free products are already considered a growth market by economists, but researchers make the case for better promoting lower-alcohol options in a health policy paper published Wednesday.

In the online issue of the journal Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology, researchers propose reducing the alcohol content of beverages such as beer and wine by a small amount to reduce the effects of ethanol, the most-harmful ingredient in alcoholic beverages.

"We are proposing that the alcohol content of alcoholic beverages [be] reduced," said the paper's lead author, Jurgen Rehm, director of the institute for mental health policy research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

"That means we should, for example, reduce the [alcohol] content of beer from an average of 5.5 per cent to an average of 4.5 per cent. That will not, according to all of the studies we know, [have an] impact on consumers; that they suddenly drink one bottle more of beer, because the consumers usually don't even notice that. But it will have a tremendous impact on health."

The alcohol content in wine can also be reduced without affecting the taste, he said.

Fraternity drinking experiment offers proof

Rehm pointed to what he called a "neat" experiment at a fraternity, where students attending a party were randomly assigned beer with either reduced-alcohol content or full alcohol.

The alcohol industry always fears they will be the new tobacco, given the numbers of deaths. So this will raise their public image and will not in any which way reduce their profits.-  Jurgen   Rehm , the paper's lead author

The students who had been assigned lower-alcohol beverages showed lower blood-alcohol levels and still reported they had fun at the party.

In another study, legislators in a northern territory in Australia put a tax on all beverages with alcohol content greater than three per cent. Alcohol-related deaths, traffic collisions and accidents all fell sharply, which suggests an effect at a society-wide level. Researchers can't be sure of the cause-and-effect relationship since other measures were introduced at the same time.

Rehm and his co-authors say some producers are already reducing the alcohol content of beer, noting they likely will sell the same amount of beer while reducing production costs.

"They could do some kind of marketing and advertisement around that and say, 'We are part of the solution.' That is also helpful because the alcohol industry always fears they will be the new tobacco, given the numbers of deaths. So this will raise their public image and will not in any which way reduce their profits," Rehm said in an interview.

According to the World Health Organization, there are nearly 3.3 million deaths each year resulting from harmful use of alcohol. And approximately 25 per cent of deaths among those aged 20-39 can be attributed to booze.

There are two other ways to achieve the goal of greater consumption of lower-alcohol options, the researchers said.

One is to increase offerings of lower-alcohol products at retailers with a monopoly, such as Ontario's LCBO, and promote them in the highest-traffic areas of the stores.

Another is to increase taxes on higher-alcohol products while decreasing taxation on beverages with less alcohol. Doing so would keep taxation revenues the same overall while increasing uptake of the less boozy options.

No panacea

In countries such as Canada, 10 per cent of drinkers consume 50 per cent of alcohol, Rehm said, and their health is most likely to benefit from the researchers proposed measures.

Rehm said he'd like to see public health professionals be open to his team's proposal and carefully measure what actually happens with a lower-alcohol policy. "If something the alcohol industry is doing is positive, we have to report it because it's in our interest to have less alcohol-attributable harm," he said.

Policies encouraging the availability of low-alcohol beer are both logical and scientifically sound, said James MacKillop, who holds the Peter Boris Chair in Addictions Research at McMaster University, and was not involved in the paper.

While the policy won't be a panacea, MacKillop said it is a credible strategy within a portfolio of sound alcohol policies that include rational taxation, minimum pricing and regulation of access and outlet density.

"The most important aspect, however, is exactly how low-alcohol beer would be encouraged ... It is here that the devil is truly in the details," MacKillop said in an email.

The only theoretical possibility of harm with such a policy, Rehm said, would be if a country where 60 per cent or more of the population abstains introduces low- or no-alcohol beer and drinking patterns increase.

One of the paper's authors received financial support from Anheuser-Busch for travel and attendance of meetings, done outside of the paper. 

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