In a new review, researchers assert that reducing the overall ethanol content in alcoholic beverages may be the key to lowering the harmful effects of drinking on society.
Alcohol accounts for significant death and disability worldwide. Among deaths of people aged 20-39, nearly one-quarter can be attributed to alcohol, according to the World Health Organization.
A decrease in ethanol, the most harmful ingredient in alcoholic beverages, would be expected to lower blood alcohol levels in drinkers, which would 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.
Compared to other policy measures such as higher taxation, limited access and marketing restrictions, there is more incentive for the alcohol industry to get on board with this proposal, said the researchers. And in addition, the industry holds some responsibility for their product.
“The idea is that a small reduction in alcohol — such as beer with four percent ethanol content versus six percent — would reduce alcohol intake per drinker even if the same overall amount of beverage is consumed,” said 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.
One concern is that drinkers would notice the difference in alcohol content and either drink more or switch to other beverages with more alcohol. But the researchers assert that these worries are not warranted.
“We know from experiments that consumers can’t distinguish between beers of different strengths,” says Rehm.
For example, in one study set at three fraternity parties, people drank the same number of beverages regardless of their alcohol content. 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 authors also found some research on the broader, societal impact. The Northern Territories of Australia began taxing alcohol with more than three percent 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.
Ultimately, the question of whether lower-strength ethanol can help reduce the burden of alcohol harms will depend on how the law is implemented and evaluated, the researchers note. But they say it is a “win-win” for both 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,” Rehm said.
Their findings are published in the journal Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology.