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Does Low Alcohol Beer Reduce High Risk Drinking?

Robert B. Voas* and David S. Timken**

* Pacific Institute for Research & Evaluation, 7315 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 1300 West Bethesda, MD 20814, USA

** Colorado Department of Health Services


Recently, brewers have been able to produce beer with less than 1/2 of 1% alcohol which is classified in the U.S. as a non-alcoholic drink. Currently 6% of American males report having consumed non-alcoholic beer in the last six months. This pilot study involved surveys designed to identify the extent to which non-alcoholic beers are used by high risk drivers (1,000 youth under 21 and 1,000 drivers convicted of driving while impaired). These surveys explored the context in which these beers were used and the reasons given for their use, to answer such questions as whether they appeared to support the use of designated drivers. The study also explored the extent to which these high risk drivers choose to consume beers with differing amounts of alcohol content. This is to determine whether if, current U.S. laws -- which prohibit indicating the amount of alcohol in beer on the container label -- were changed, whether this would likely result in greater alcohol consumption among these high risk groups.


For some time, bars and restaurants have been encouraged as part of Responsible Beverage Service Programs (RBSP) to provide non-alcoholic look-alike drinks such as "Shirley Temples" and "Virgin Marys". In addition, special mineral waters such as Perrier have become socially fashionable with the result that these beverages have significant sales in settings in which alcohol is normally consumed. In recent years, these non-alcoholic alternatives have been expanded by the development of low or zero alcohol beers and wine. These beers are brewed in the normal manner but the alcohol is driven off so that the final product has less than half of 1% alcohol allowing it to be sold as a non-alcoholic beverage in the United States. This practice may have particularly important safety implications because beer is the beverage of choice for those drivers most involved in Driving Under the Influence (DUI) arrests and alcohol related crashes.

There is considerable question whether the availability of these low alcohol beers and other reduced or non-alcohol products increase or decrease the general consumption of alcohol and more specifically increase or decrease the risks of involvement in alcohol related crashes. One potential threat of such low or non-alcoholic beverages is that they will provide a gateway for non-drinkers into the alcohol consuming population. If they provide a path for introducing non-drinkers to alcohol, they would be expected to have their primary effect on youth under 21 who are prohibited from purchasing alcoholic drinks but can consume and purchase such non-alcoholic beverages. On the other hand, the availability of non-alcoholic beer might encourage potential drinking drivers to use this product in place an alcoholic beverage. The use of non-alcoholic beverages is key to the "Designated Driver" concept which is the focus of many safety campaigns. The introduction of a look alike, taste alike, non-alcoholic beer should encourage drivers who drink to participate in such programs. The objective of this preliminary study was to obtain an indication of the role that non-alcoholic beer may be playing in the drinking and driving of young drivers and convicted DUI offenders in the United States.

To study the current use of low or no-alcohol beer, questions regarding the use and purchase intentions for this type of beverage were added to on-going surveys in California and Colorado. The three surveys employed were: DUI offenders - 915 convicted DUI offenders in the state of Colorado provided information on their use no alcohol beer by filling out a five minute self report form during the months of February and March, 1995. Underage drivers - 513 drivers, between the ages of 16 and 20, were interviewed over the phone by means of a random digit dialing survey of households in the state of California. This study reports the responses from 295 of these 513 who stated that they had had at least one drink during the previous month (December, 1994). Adult Drivers - 712 drivers age 21 or older, were interviewed in a random digit dialing survey between November 1, 1994 and January 31, 1995 in the state of California.


Current federal legislation prohibits brewers from displaying on the container the amount of alcohol in their beer. This labeling limitation was apparently originally adopted out of concern that brewers would vie with each other to increase the alcohol content and that total content would become a sales feature which would attract users to select beers with higher alcohol content.

Recently this law has been challenged and a case is currently under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court which will determine whether this labelling prohibition is constitutional. To obtain some information on the relevancy of this prohibition, the two at-risk groups; convicted DUIs and underage drivers who drink, were asked, "Assuming that beers with high and low alcohol content taste and cost the same, would you prefer a beer with: above average, average, below average, or zero alcohol content." The results of this question are shown in Table 1.

Table 1
Alcohol Content Preference Assuming that they Taste and Cost the Same, would you Prefer a Beer with:

Response DWIs Underage Drivers
N % N %
1. Above average alcohol 115 12.6 75 25.4
2. Average alcohol 572 62.5 119 40.3
3. Below average alcohol 111 12.1 22 7.5
4. No alcohol 54 5.9 32 10.8
No answer 63 6.9 47 15.9
TOTAL 915 100.0 295 99.9

As can be seen, the majority of the DUIs indicated that they would choose a beer that was about average in alcohol content. Only about one in eight indicated that they would select a beer with above average alcohol content. Among youth on the other hand, nearly twice as many would select a beer with above average alcohol content. Only a small portion of either group indicated that they would select a no-alcohol beer. Currently, the groups which indicated they would purchase a no-alcohol beer are not prevented from doing so by the labelling legislation since non-alcoholic beers are clearly labeled and frequently appear in different locations on the grocery shelves since they may be considered a soft drink rather than an alcoholic beverage.


In a follow-up question to that shown in Table 1, respondents were asked whether they believed that beer labels should show the alcohol content (see Table 2). As can be seen, both the convicted DUIs and the under age drinkers indicated that they believe the alcohol content should be indicated on the label. Considering the responses in Table 1, there is no strong indication that the availability of this information would change the quantity of alcohol consumed by convicted DUIs. There is some question about the impact that information on alcohol content would have on the beverage choice of under-age drinkers. There is some indication that this group might increase their alcohol consumption by opting for beers with above average alcohol concentrations.

Table 2
Should the Beer Label Show the Alcohol Content?

Response DUIs Underage Drinkers
N % N %
Yes 761 83.2 218 73.9
No 150 16.4 28 9.5
No Answer, Don't Know 4 .4 49 16.6
TOTAL 915 100.0 295 100.0


The respondents in both surveys were asked if they would drink a non-alcoholic beer if it had the same price and taste of their regular beer. It is interesting to note as shown in Table 3, that the convicted DUI drivers were proportionately twice as willing to use non-alcoholic beer as were under-age drinkers.

Table 3
If Non-Alcoholic Beer had the Same Price and Taste of Regular Beer, would you Drink It?

Response DUIs Underage Drinkers
N % N %
Yes 639 69.8 92 31.2
No 231 25.2 150 50.8
No Answer 45 4.9 53 18.0
TOTAL 915 100.0 295 100.0

Table 4 contains the responses to a follow-up question which asked whether the respondent had tried a no-alcohol beer. Here, despite the fact that the underage drinkers could legally purchase and consume no-alcohol beer in most states, proportionately fewer had tried a non-alcoholic beer than had the convicted DUIs who could legally purchase alcoholic beverages. A part of this difference may be purely a matter of maturity, with the older DUIs having longer histories of the use of alcohol and alcohol look-alike products. It is interesting that while only 37% of the general adult population in the California survey reported having tried a non-alcoholic beer, 61% of the DUIs had tried this type of beverage.

Table 4
Have You Ever Tried a Non-Alcohol Beer?

Response California Colorado
248 Underage Drank Last Month 177 Underage Did Not Drink in Last Month 712 Adults 915 DUIs
Yes 52.8 32.4 37.0 60.8
No 47.2 66.6 63.0 39.2

Table 4 summarizes the response of four groups to the question, "Have you tried a no-alcohol beer?" As noted, a random sample of 712 adults over 21 in the state of California found that 37% of these respondents reported having tried a no-alcohol beer. However, of those adults who indicated they had tried it, only 18% had tried it in the last four weeks and of those who had tried it in the last four weeks, just over half (56%) had a non-alcoholic beer on more than one occasion in those four weeks. Thus, of the 712 adults interviewed, only 27 or just under 4% had used a no-alcohol beer on more than one occasion in the last four weeks. It appears, therefore, that non-alcoholic beer does not play a very significant role in alcohol consumption among the general adult population even though a sizeable proportion of adults report that they have tried no-alcohol beer.

As shown in Table 4, the two at-risk groups for drinking and driving; underage drinkers who report having consumed alcohol in the last month and convicted DUIs, both have larger proportions reporting that they have tried no-alcohol beer. Among the underage drivers who drank in the last month and reported that they had tried a no-alcohol beer, only half had had a no-alcohol beer in the last six months (45.8%) and only one in 5 (20.6%) had tried one in the last four weeks and only approximately one in ten (9.2%) had had a non-alcoholic beer on more than one occasion. Thus, the use of non-alcoholic beer in this at-risk group does not appear to be high enough for it to significantly reduce their risk of drinking and driving even though over half of this population reports having tried non-alcoholic beer.

The DUIs who report that they have tried a non-alcoholic beer appear to use this beverage more frequently than the other groups one in nine (11.5%) report that they have a non-alcoholic beer one or more times a week, while 40.6% report that they have a non-alcoholic beer one or more times a month. When these DUIs were asked to select one from a list of reasons for drinking non-alcoholic beer, the most frequently chosen reason was to "be able to drive safely or legally," which was chosen by one in three of the respondents (34.2%). An additional 11.3% chose "when acting as a designated driver," indicating that as many as 45% would be motivated by drinking and driving considerations. The next two most frequently selected reasons were "to be sociable with my friends who are drinkers" (22.6%) and "to keep from getting 'high'" (20.6%). This suggests that perhaps one in five of those who have tried non-alcoholic beer are attempting to abstain from alcohol and may be using this beverage to avoid drinking when associating with friends who are still drinking. Further study is needed to determine whether this is the case and whether individuals with drinking problems such as DUIs can successfully transfer from a regular to a non-alcoholic beer.

Among those DUIs who indicated that they would not purchase a non-alcoholic beer, the principal reason selected for this decision was "don't like the taste of beer" (30.2%). Suggesting as might be expected, the no-alcohol beers are not an alternative for those who drink wine or liquor. A more significant concern, however, was that one in five of those who stated they would not use a non-alcoholic beer gave as their reason, "want to get 'high'" (19.9%). This group is clearly drinking for effect and rejects non-alcoholic beer as an alternative.

As noted, a significant issue with respect to the sale of non-alcoholic beer is the question of whether this beverage will serve as a transition or gateway to alcohol use. As shown in Table 4, one in three of the underage drivers who stated that they had not had an alcoholic drink in the last four weeks reported that they had tried non-alcohol beer. Of this one-third, 34.5% indicated that they had tried a non-alcoholic beer in the last six months, but only 13.8% had had a non-alcoholic beer in the last four weeks and only 6.8% of those who reported trying a non-alcoholic beer had had more than one in the last four weeks. Thus, non-alcoholic beer does not appear to be an important beverage for underage drivers who do not drink regularly and does not appear to be serving as a transition to heavier alcohol use. Obviously a more detailed model of the role of non-alcoholic beverages in underage drinking is required.