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The not-so-beautiful truth about beer

Beers that now have nutritional labelling feature in the Brewer Association's campaign. Photo/Screenshot.

Is it time for more health warnings on alcohol?

A recent campaign advertising “the beautiful truth” of beer as low in sugar and carbs is misleading and glosses over the true nature of alcohol, says an alcohol harm reduction group.

The Brewers Association’s (BA) ‘Beer the Beautiful Truth’ campaign which rolled out last year promotes the message that beer is low in sugar and carbs, in conjunction with nutritional labelling on some of its beer range.

The BA began the campaign after doing research which found there was a misconception that beer was high in sugar. However, Nikki Jackson, director of Alcohol Health Watch, says it’s a deceptive campaign.

“They’ve responded to that [misconception] by telling the truth about the sugar content in beer, but they’re misleading the customer by not saying the major component of energy is the alcohol.”

It is the alcohol itself that is high in energy ‒ one gram has 27 kilojoules, compared to one gram of sugar which has 17 kilojoules. While there is sugar used in the beer-making process, it gets eaten by the yeast in the fermentation process. Jackson says the BA is using the same tactics the tobacco industry used when it introduced light and mild cigarettes in an attempt to make cigarettes seem healthier, when cigarette sales plummeted.

The volume of 2.5-4.3% beer - the majority of the beers in the campaign - available for consumption has gradually declined since 2002, by nearly half, while higher strength beer sales are rising, according to Statistics New Zealand.

Richie Hardcore (his legal name) is a speaker and educator in preventing sexual violence and previously worked for the Ministry of Health in community drug and alcohol harm reduction. He says the campaign is ridiculous and ignores the harmful effects of alcohol.

“It’s totally how insidious of how alcohol marketing is, when you muddy the waters of public knowledge by clever campaigns like this that say alcohol has ‘health benefits’, then we’re going to keep getting the problems we have.

“We really need to look at legislative reform that would make that sort of advertising campaign illegal because alcohol doesn’t have health benefits, it’s high in calories and we have an obesity epidemic.”

The energy in beer comes from the alcohol itself: one gram has 27 kilojoules, compared to one gram of sugar which has 17 kilojoules. Photo/Getty.

Dylan Firth, executive director of the BA, says its research shows most New Zealanders are confused about what is in their beer, and, of those surveyed, 75% of respondents wanted nutritional information on alcohol bottles with 83% of women in favour of it.

“Beer the Beautiful Truth is about voluntarily sharing the facts about beer on labels to help Kiwi consumers be more informed about what they are drinking.”

He says the nutritional panels include information on sugar, preservatives, carbohydrates and calories, with the latter including those from alcohol. “This campaign is not about driving consumption; nor is it a health campaign. It is to help people better understand what is in beer, and in turn, make more informed choices.”

Unsurprisingly, AHW advocates for a much tougher stance on alcohol advertising and marketing through legislation. Jackson says warnings of the harmful effects of alcohol should be on the bottle, much like tobacco products, as many people aren’t aware of the health risks.

“Even from low levels of regular consumption - about two standard drinks per day, you increase your risk of cancer. So we are concerned about heavy use but also the low-level use. Chronic disease from alcohol use is extraordinary.”

So why don’t people treat alcohol like tobacco?

“If you were to graph all of the drugs available in society whether that be tobacco, methamphetamine, alcohol, or cannabis, alcohol stands out by a country mile in terms of the amount of harm, but it’s because 80 percent of us drink, there’s huge lobbying by the alcohol industry to our politicians and there’s a lot of money involved.

“Anyone that tries to address alcohol is framed as a nanny state, wanting people to not have fun.  It’s not what we’re about, it’s about minimising the harm from alcohol...we think this type of campaign is not the in the right direction of trying to reduce problem drinking.”

Several attempts in New Zealand to introduce legislation requiring alcohol to carry health warnings have been rejected by Parliament. For example, in 1990 a Private Member’s Bill was introduced proposing different health warnings on alcohol advertising. Despite a large number of public submissions supporting it, it was rejected in favour of a review. The only legislation that has been successful so far has been warnings aimed at women who may be pregnant.

Jackson says there will be more campaigns like 'Beer the Beautiful Truth' to come.

"I think we’ll see more of this type of marketing, I think they’ll use any tactic they can when their market share decreases. Given we have no legislative framework there is very little action we can take."