Reducing the harms of alcohol through weaker beer

August 10, 2016

Toronto, August 10, 2016 - Could a small drop in the alcohol content of beer or other drinks reduce the harmful effects of alcohol in society at large?

A new review in Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology, which explores the evidence, suggests this approach may be worth pursuing. Alcohol accounts for significant death and disability worldwide. Among those aged 20-39, nearly one-quarter of deaths can be attributed to alcohol, according to the World Health Organization.

"The idea is that a small reduction in alcohol - such as beer with four per cent ethanol content versus six per cent - would reduce alcohol intake per drinker even if the same overall amount of beverage is consumed," says Dr. Jürgen Rehm, lead author and Director of the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, Canada.

A decrease in ethanol, the most harmful ingredient in alcoholic beverages, would be expected to lead to lower blood alcohol levels in drinkers. And this could reduce immediate harms such as injuries or accidents, as well as alcohol-related chronic diseases that develop over time, such as liver cirrhosis or cancer.

The researchers note that there is more incentive for the alcohol industry to get on board with this proposal, compared to other policy measures such as higher taxation, limited access and marketing restrictions. And in addition, the industry holds some responsibility for their product.

A key concern is that drinkers would notice the difference in alcohol content, and consume more to compensate or switch to other beverages with more alcohol.

The researchers searched for studies and reviews on all of these points. Overall, there was not much research that directly examined the effects of lower alcohol content in relation to reducing harms on a large scale. However, they did find that concerns around drinkers' behaviours were not warranted.

"We know from experiments that consumers can't distinguish between beers of different strengths," says Dr. Rehm. In one study set at three fraternity parties, the amount party-goers drank didn't differ with weaker versus stronger drinks. In another study, participants were given lower- and higher-strength beer on two different occasions, and most did not report differences in how they felt after these sessions. In both studies, participants had a significantly lower blood alcohol concentration with lower-alcohol drinks.

The reviewers also found some research on the broader, societal impact. The Northern Territories of Australia levied a tax on alcohol with more than three per cent ethanol, which led to greater availability of lower-strength beer. This policy change resulted in fewer alcohol-related deaths, but also took place in combination with educational efforts, greater controls on availability and new treatment services.

Another approach to reducing alcohol harms identified would be offering alcohol-free drinks as a cheaper alternative in bars or restaurants. The drawback is that not only does it require drinkers to choose this option, but there is limited evidence that it affects drinking levels or alcohol-related harms.

Ultimately, the question of whether lower-strength alcohol can make a dent in reducing the burden of alcohol harms will depend on how any measure is implemented and evaluated, the researchers note. But the evidence suggests it is worth considering as a "win-win" for public health efforts and alcohol producers.

"The proposal presents a unique situation, where public health interests in reducing alcohol consumption is not in conflict with the alcohol industry," says Dr. Rehm.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital and a world leading research centre in this field. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development and health promotion to help transform the lives of people affected by mental illness and addiction. CAMH is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, and is a Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization Collaborating Centre. For more information, please visit or follow @CAMHResearch on Twitter.

Media Contact:

Kate Richards
Media Relations
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)
(416) 595-6015

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Related Mental Health Articles from Brightsurf:

Mental health strained by disaster
A new study found that suicide rates increase during all types of disasters -- including severe storms, floods, hurricanes and ice storms -- with the largest overall increase occurring two years after a disaster.

The mental health impact of pandemics for front line health care staff
New research shows the impact that pandemics have on the mental health of front-line health care staff.

World Mental Health Day -- CACTUS releases report of largest researcher mental health survey
On the occasion of 'World Mental Health Day' 2020, CACTUS, a global scientific communications company, has released a global survey on mental health, wellbeing and fulfilment in academia.

Mental illness, mental health care use among police officers
A survey study of Texas police officers examines how common mental illness and mental health care use are in a large urban department.

COVID-19 outbreak and mental health
The use of online platforms to guide effective consumption of information, facilitate social support and continue mental health care delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic is discussed in this Viewpoint.

COVID-19 may have consequences for mental health
The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be adversely affecting mental health among hospitalised patients, the healthcare professionals treating them and the general population.

Mental health outcomes among health care workers during COVID-19 pandemic in Italy
Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and insomnia among health care workers in Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic are reported in this observational study.

Mental ill health 'substantial health concern' among police, finds international study
Mental health issues among police officers are a 'substantial health concern,' with around 1 in 4 potentially drinking at hazardous levels and around 1 in 7 meeting the criteria for post traumatic stress disorder and depression, finds a pooled data analysis of the available international evidence, published online in Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

Examining health insurance nondiscrimination policies with mental health among gender minority individuals
A large private health insurance database was used to examine the association between between health insurance nondiscrimination policies and mental health outcomes for gender minority individuals.

Mental health care for adolescents
Researchers examined changes over time in the kinds of mental health problems for which adolescents in the United States received care and where they got that care in this survey study with findings that should be interpreted within the context of several limitations including self-reported information.

Read More: Mental Health News and Mental Health Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to