The easiest way to reduce alcohol consumption? Water it down, says science

A new study says reducing the alcohol content will boost public health and still allow producers to make a profit

Watered down alcohol


The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that roughly 3.3m people die from an alcohol-related issue every year. Convincing people to consume less alcohol proves to be very difficult, with regulations and adverts designed to get people to understand the long-term advantage of countering their desires for the sake of their health.

Governments raise tariffs and taxes and laws govern how alcohol producers can market their goods, but they seem to have little impact in reducing the death toll. So now a new study is making a case that perhaps the most efficient method of reducing the threat of booze to public health may be to water it down.

“Overviews of the reduction of harmful use of alcohol emphasise the so-called best buys – i.e., increases in price via taxation, decreases in availability, and bans on marketing and advertisements,” reads the paper published in The Lancet: Gastroenterology & Hepatology. But as the authors argue, “the policy interventions implemented by the alcohol industry usually have negative or mixed evidence at best.”

However, by reducing the strength of an alcoholic substance, a happy meeting point could be met whereby there is a boost to public health (by cutting back on overall consumption) while still allowing the drinks industry to turn a profit.

“The proposal presents a unique situation, where public health interests in reducing alcohol consumption is not in conflict with the alcohol industry,” said the study’s lead author Jürgen Rehm, director of Toronto’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research.

According to the research, this is not a new idea in terms of public health, and there is some evidence to propose its introduction. In the first decades of the second half of the 20th century, most alcohol products saw a decreasing pattern in the average alcohol content. This was also true for wine until the 1980s, when it started becoming stronger again.

For the consumer, it also is worth bearing in mind that most people would not even be aware of the change. When it comes to taste, previous research has shown that when it comes to drinking, people cannot tell the difference between regular, low-alcohol, or even alcohol-free beer. In a 2014 study of students attending fraternity parties at US colleges, which are infamous for their high level of alcohol consumption, students could neither tell the difference based on the taste of the beer nor by how much on the way to intoxication they thought they were.

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