Author: Claire Davey
We were told by a number of mainstream news outlets that the British population were destined for an increasingly sober or sober-ish Christmas last year, rather than waiting until Dry January to curb alcohol consumption. Large supermarkets continue to experience increased sales in the ‘No and Low’ drinks category, otherwise known as NoLos. These drinks are targeted at the adult palate, which either contain no alcohol or have a very low ABV% and are often styled as alternatives (but similar) to beer, wine or spirits. The Grocer calculates that adult soft drink sales surged by 18.5% in 2021 to £714m (in the UK), and NoLos accounted for three quarters of this growth. However, in order to understand the rising popularity of NoLo drinks, it is necessary examine the recent and historical trends in alcohol (non-)consumption.
There was a significant increase in alcohol consumption in England after World War Two which continued until 2004, reaching a peak of 11.6 litres per person, and subsequently fuelled a moral panic regarding ‘binge drinking’. Yet NHS data shows that Heavy Episodic Drinking (HED) has declined during the past decade, from 33% to 25% of adults between 2006-2018. According to research published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) regarding ‘Adult drinking habits in Great Britain’, 20% of adults aged 16+ declared themselves to be teetotal in 2017. On average, women were more likely to be teetotal (23%) compared to men (18%), and the largest growth in teetotalism between 2005-2017 was seen by those under the ages of 45, rising between 5-6% in this age group. From this data it can be established that there is an increasing trend, albeit small, of those who are choosing not to drink at all. These trends are reflected in most high-income countries, with the steepest decline in alcohol consumption occurring in the UK and Northern Europe (Pape et al., 2018).
It is important to identify neo-liberalism as an economic and social force which has contributed to the current trends in popular sobriety, and also shaped academic discourse regarding this change in behaviours. Neo-liberalism itself is a term referring to the late 20th century revival of 19th century ideas regarding ‘political, economic, and social arrangements in society that emphasise market relations, re-tasking the role of the state, and individual responsibility’ (Springer et al., 2016: 2). It is typically associated with policies of deregulation, globalisation, privatisation, reduced government spending and (post 2008) austerity. Furthermore, within academic discourse neoliberalism is often deployed as a derogatory, dismissive term that emphasises the negative, ‘bad’ or shallow implications of capitalism. The changes to UK alcohol policy and licensing in the early 21st century have been interpreted as a neo-liberal approach by government to encourage drinkers to spend their money and leisure time in the throes of consumption whilst upholding societal expectations of self-control, self-regulation and respectability (Hayward & Hobbs, 2007; Nicholls, 2018).
More recently, the decision to remain abstinent has also been viewed through a neo-liberal lens; elements of non-drinkers’ lifestyles are identified as neo-liberal indicators, such as the desire for self-control or self-improvement (Yeomans, 2018; Caluzzi et al., 2021a). In her 2021 paper, Nicholls interprets sober women’s attempts to avoid a label of deviancy through maintaining their status as good, neo-liberal consumers who buy into notions of self-improvement and the ‘enterprising self’. Furthermore, the significant overlap between abstinent and sport or fitness-based identities (Törrönen et al., 2021) is interpreted by some as another feature of neoliberal cultural influences which put the onus of responsibility and control upon the individual, particularly with respect to health and wellbeing (Caluzzi et al., 2021b). This desire for self-improvement via sobriety is often interpreted as a modern-day, middle class, neo-liberal phenomena when it is evident that there have been links between sobriety, social mobility and self-improvement as early as the 16th century for economic reasons, within religion, and particularly in the temperance movements of the 19th century – this is in addition to 20th century recovery narratives within Alcoholics Anonymous.
In response to this growing demand and interest in sobriety and wellbeing within Western cultures, the NoLo product category has emerged. Big Alcohol has detected the shift in consumption and are eagerly attempting to capture this alcohol-free demographic through the development of ‘no and low’ alternatives. This echoes their modernising rebranding campaigns of the 1990s when breweries rushed to respond to an emerging female market, and also declining youth sales as a result of a profit-threatening preference for club drugs. Yet the NoLo segment has also attracted a number of independent start-ups which have sought to address the void in the market for grown-up soft drinks and compete against the giant breweries. To date there is very little academic research that explores this phenomenon.
A report by the Social Market Foundation (SMF), sponsored by Alcohol Change UK, found that NoLo drinks were most popular with young (18-34) males who are of higher income or socio-economic grouping, and were most often consumed in situations when drinking a stronger ABV% would be inappropriate, i.e. prior to driving or exercise. It was also found that drinkers (as opposed to non-drinkers) are most likely to consume a NoLo in order to manage alcohol consumption as opposed to abstinence. This has subsequently been supported by a separate study by Anderson et al (2021) about NoLo beers specifically. However, Nicholls’ recent report from a smaller, qualitative study renders a more mixed picture as to who is consuming NoLos, with added contextualisation of how these drinks inform (non-)drinking practices. As such, a relationship between this new market category and the rise in popular teetotalism is yet to be established.
There is also a concern that alcohol-free drinks, and the marketing thereof, could lead to the introduction of alcohol-like drinks and Big Alcohol brands to under-age youth (Miller et al., 2021), or exacerbate alcohol consumption with alibi and addition marketing strategies (Nicholls, 2022) . Indeed, with some labels and branding, it is not always immediately obvious that they are alcohol-free, and (from my experiential knowledge) this can be a substantial selling point to those who wish to feel part of a shared drinking experience without the alcohol.
Evidently there remain many unanswered questions regarding the consumption and marketing of NoLo drinks – particularly whether they act as a ‘gateway’ product for eventual sobriety through the piquing of popular ‘sober curiosity’ and encouragement of ‘mindful drinking’. With the category’s sustained growth, increased media attention, and the opening of the UK’s first alcohol-free off-licence, hopefully this will attract greater academic resources in the coming year to address these gaps in knowledge.
Header photo credit: Katherine Sousa
Claire Davey is a PhD candidate at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK. Her PhD research explores UK women’s increasing engagement with sobriety or alcohol-free living, and the growth of female-led online sobriety communities. She is also the Managing Editor of 'Points'.