We didn’t mean to ‘lobby’. That is for charities and the like. Club Soda is a healthy lifestyle movement that empowers us, as individuals, to take action and responsibility for our own futures.
But, well, many Club Soda members drink a lot of alcohol-free drinks (0.5% ABV and below), and we have learnt that pubs often don’t stock them as they are confused because of the labelling (and tax levels) of them. So really we decided that we could not stay quiet on this topic. And that’s how eleven of us ended up in Parliament last week.
Fiona Bruce MP hosted Club Soda and Alcohol Concern, and we invited along some our alcohol-free drinks producing friends: Fitbeer, Nirvana Brewery, Teetotal GnT, Heineken 0.0, St Peter’s Brewery and Big Drop Brewing, and Wise Bartender provided us with some wines too. They put on a great drinks tasting for the MPs and Lords who came along, and heard what we had to say.
The amazing boom in new drinks led by homegrown producers has been one of the most exciting developments in the last few years. When I gave up drinking nearly 6 years ago, there was not that much choice. And in pubs and restaurants, there still often isn’t. It seems that the demand is high, but availability low.
Part of the reason (not the whole picture by any means) is that the labelling rules for low and no-alcohol drinks are confusing. Drinks have to be called non-alcoholic, alcohol-free, low-alcohol or de-alcoholised depending on various different factors, some of which are out of date. You can see more in our briefing here.
A 0.5% ABV beer, such as Big Drop, made here in the UK has to be labelled low alcohol (or dealcoholised, but as they have not been through this process this does not work for them), but a similar beer from another country, like Germany, can be labeled and sold here as alcohol-free, since in Germany this amount of alcohol is considered alcohol-free.
Yet no alcohol license is needed to sell a drink at 0.5% and below in the UK, and the tax threshold for low alcohol is actually 1.2%. We spend too much time explaining to people who ask what they can or cannot drink if they are on an alcohol-free day.
The interesting thing to know is that anything that goes through a natural fermentation process has a trace of alcohol. And many foods and drinks do: for example vinegar, overripe bananas and other fruit, bread, and juices. Even lemonades have some alcohol in them.
Labelling rules are inconsistent. Some products have to state their alcohol content (the “ABV”), while others don’t. Some drinks can be called “alcohol-free”, while very similar drinks can’t. You can buy a soft drink (ginger beer for example and some kombuchas) that are up 0.5%, but don’t need to say so, as they are in the soft drink category. A popular lemonade and lime drink is 0.05%. Desserts and foodstuffs don’t need an ABV on their label, even though many will contain well over 0.5% alcohol (check out the small print in Baileys desserts in Iceland, or the Essentials profiteroles in Waitrose if you don’t believe us).
Alcohol-free products are the drink of choice for thousands of people who choose to avoid or drink less alcohol. In a survey of over 500 Club Soda members and Dry January participants, conducted by Alcohol Research UK and Club Soda last month, 86% said they bought these products because they were looking to cut down their drinking.
But you were confused by the labels, and found it hard to make sense of terms such as ‘alcohol-free’, ‘low alcohol’, ‘de-alcoholised’ and ‘non-alcoholic’ – all of which currently have a different legal definition. Some products also use the term ‘light’ or ‘lite’ to mean low alcohol, where others use it to refer to calories.
In the survey, 56% expected that a ‘low-alcohol’ beer would only contain up to 0.5% alcohol, whereas ‘low alcohol’ products can currently contain up to 1.2% alcohol. Some felt ‘alcohol-free’ should mean absolutely no alcohol, while others were happy for it to mean drinks of up 0.5% alcohol.
I now have a response on ‘what is alcohol-free’ ready to cut and paste into community posts as it is asked so often – you can also read it on the Club Soda FAQ page.
You overwhelmingly said you want better information and the opportunity to make a clear choice on low alcohol and alcohol-free products.
The real crux of the issue for us is not your needs (sorry!), but what happens when you drink a lot of these (say 5 bottles of 0.5% beer on a night out). The answer is, apart from visiting the toilet a lot, that you would have to drink huge amounts of these drinks to feel the effects of the alcohol (10 bottles of 0.5% beer to get to one unit of alcohol). You are okay to drive after drinking alcohol-free beer. They are safe to drink if you are pregnant.
We know alcohol-free drinks can be really helpful in reducing your drinking and going alcohol-free. But it is an individual choice.
Alcohol-free drinks are generally lower in calories, and often sugar-free too, so if you are looking to lose weight or if sugar triggers you to drink alcohol, a non-alcoholic beer for example can be a good alternative to coke and lemonade and other sugary fizzy drinks.
To us, this is all a bit of a no-brainer.
Some alcohol services say that you should stay away from alcohol-free beers and wines if you have had issues with your alcohol use. It is important to know why this advice is given. It is not because of the small amount of alcohol – otherwise you would have to avoid soy sauce, vinegar, orange juice, bananas and even your own stomach. In fact it is because a drink that tastes like the alcoholic drink you once used too much could trigger you to drink the real thing.
Only you can tell if an alcohol-free drink triggers you to drink alcoholic drinks. Some people decide to avoid non-alcoholic beers and wines, and that’s fine by us. In the end, only you can decide where you draw the line between “not alcohol” and “alcohol”.
The Government has admitted that the regulations need to change, and they have given themselves a deadline to do this by December 2018. The date gets ever closer, but no public consultation has yet come out.
We wanted to let the politicians in Parliament know what we want to happen: Designate 0.5% as the limit for alcohol-free. We know there will be some people who think it should be less, and others who think it should be more, but from where we sit, looking at what works for you, we think this is the clear and unambiguous message for drivers, mothers-to-be and mindful drinkers.