Emily Nicholls talks to the SSA about how no- and low-alcohol drinks are marketed to consumers, and whether there is any evidence to suggest that people are swapping out alcoholic beverages for ‘NoLos’.

Dr Emily Nicholls is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York. She spoke at the SSA’s 2022 Annual Conference about her research into the no- and low-alcohol (NoLo) drinks market.

Emily’s research career started in the area of gender identity, which has informed her body of work in the substance use field, including studies about how women use alcohol to construct their identities and how women experience early sobriety. More recently, Emily investigated drinking during the COVID-19 lockdown, and then, with the help of funding from the Institute of Alcohol Studies, started researching the growing NoLo market.

The SSA spoke to Emily at the Annual Conference in Bristol, and asked her to describe how this new generation of beverage products was being used by consumers. In the interview, she refers to the broader evidence base, and also shares some of her emerging findings, which help clarify people’s motivations or reasons for choosing NoLos.

“In the last couple of years, I’ve really seen the NoLo market growing, and thought, ‘there’s scope for more research there’. So I managed to get some funding from the Institute of Alcohol Studies to do a small-scale study exploring how these products are used by consumers, but also the ways in which they are marketed.”

Emily explains that there is much interest in whether NoLos function as ‘substitutes’ (i.e. they are used instead of what people are already drinking) or as ‘additions’ (i.e. they are used on top of what people are already drinking). She also describes the tension between these two functions from an alcohol harm-reduction perspective, indicating that on the one hand you might have a product that reduces alcohol-related harm by reducing overall alcohol consumption, and on the other hand a product that has no overall effect on alcohol consumption and could be used surreptitiously to market the bigger alcohol brand.

Emily says that there is some evidence of NoLos being used as both substitutes and additions. However, her own study casts doubt on the acceptability of NoLos in contexts where alcohol would not typically be consumed.

“When I talked to my participants about, ‘would you have a NoLo in the workplace or when driving or at the gym’, that did seem quite strange to them. Whereas they did talk about ‘substitution’ – you know, swapping alcohol for NoLos.”

People in Emily’s study were more likely to talk about drinking NoLos as substitutes for alcohol, than as beverages they would ‘add’ into their lives in other situations or settings. Yet, one of the leading beer brands Emily examined had very few adverts for NoLo beer products in places where you would expect beer to be drunk (e.g. pubs). Instead, they were shown in places where you wouldn’t normally drink alcohol – a marketing strategy that doesn’t necessarily tap into the potential of NoLos to encourage people to reduce their overall alcohol consumption by substituting alcohol products for no- or low-alcohol products.

Emily’s study excluded people who had been in treatment for alcohol-related issues. Other than this, her participants fell into a few different categories in terms of their alcohol use – from people who were non-drinkers or planning long-term sobriety, to people who were taking short-term breaks from alcohol (e.g. due to health reasons or pregnancy), and finally to people who wanted to drink both NoLos and alcoholic beverages. However, Emily says that none of her participants would be classed as ‘heavy drinkers’, which raises questions about the extent to which NoLos can reduce alcohol-related harm.

“Probably from that sample, none of them were very heavy drinkers, which raises questions about how valuable NoLos can be if they are being used by people who are already quite light drinkers or indeed non-drinkers.”

As to where her research goes from here, Emily talks about several things that interest her around ‘craft’ products within the NoLo market (such as real ales), about people who return to alcohol after not drinking for a while, and about people who ‘abstain’ in different areas of their life (e.g. veganism).

by Natalie Davies

Editor’s note: Quotes have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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