Sin is going out of fashion

Seedlip drinks bottles

Younger generations are less likely to turn to drink for solace or pleasure. What will this mean for our booze-soaked culture and economy? Stuart Watkins reports.

Keith Richards has cut back on his drinking. That has got to be a sign of something. The comedian Bill Hicks once paid tribute to the Rolling Stones guitarist for sailing out care-free on a drink-and-drugs tour over the edge and finding, who knew, that there was a ledge beyond the edge. And what’s more, he seemed pretty happy out there on that ledge. Now, Richards is sending back new reports from his experiments in wild excess. “I pulled the plug on it. I got fed up with it,” he told Rolling Stone magazine. “But I don’t notice any difference really – except for I don’t drink… I’ve done it. I didn’t want that anymore.” Fellow band member Ronnie Wood, who got sober in 2010, is happy with the changes he’s seen in his friend. He’s now “a pleasure to work with”, Wood says. “Much more mellow.”

The band members are all in their 70s, so perhaps this is not so surprising – the partying surely had to come to an end some time. But the ageing rockers are far from alone in their new-found sobriety. In 2018, more than four million people took part in “Dry January”, an initiative that tries to convince people to quit drinking alcohol for a month at the start of the new year. That’s up from 4,000 when Alcohol Change UK, the charity behind the campaign, first started it in 2012.

Young people, especially, are spurning the bottle throughout the year. According to a study published in the BCM Public Health journal last year, the number of young people in Great Britain aged 16-24 who class themselves as non-drinkers rose from around 18% in 2005 to 29% in 2015, largely as a result of an increase in the number of people who completely abstain. The number who had not had a drink in the past week rose from 35% to 50%.

The rise in the number of teetotallers has coincided with delayed initiation into the rituals of drink, says the report – that is, people are not starting drinking till later in life, and so are not acquiring the habit of committed boozing. And although the increase has been greatest among young adults, it is part of a wider trend. Around 10% of all age groups classified themselves as non-drinkers in 1998, according to the Office for National Statistics, rising to 15% in 2009 and more than 20% in 2017. Overall consumption has fallen by around 16% since 2004.

The economic impact

This should prove to be good news for the economy in general. The savings in health costs alone should be substantial – assuming abstinence from alcohol isn’t replaced with equally damaging activities, which seems a safe assumption to make about a generation increasingly going vegan and taking up yoga.

It is widely and mistakenly thought that alcohol is only really a problem for a small minority of people, and it is true that less than 5% of us drink a third of all alcohol consumed, on figures from Public Health England. But those figures also show one in four of us are drinking enough to put our health at risk, whether that’s in the short-term from alcohol-related accidents and injuries or over the longer term from liver disease and cancer, as Alison Douglas and Ian Gilmore point out on the blog of the British Medical Journal.

The NHS’s long-term plan recognises alcohol as one of the top five risk factors that cause premature deaths in England. Another study, for The Lancet, from 2010, suggested that, in terms of harm to both users themselves and to wider society, alcohol is the most harmful drug of all – almost three times as harmful as cocaine or tobacco.

Douglas and Gilmore back a minimum unit pricing policy to tackle the problem, an idea backed by the World Health Organisation (but rejected this month by the health secretary, perhaps because he is waiting to see the effect of Scotland’s legislation). Cancer Research UK, a charity, believes the policy could save the NHS £1.3bn over 20 years.

“The number of young non-drinkers in Britain rose from around 18% in  2005 to 29% in 2015”

What of the total cost of alcohol to society? It’s hard to say for sure, as the Institute of Alcohol Studies points out. Many of the costs are difficult to estimate accurately and there is debate around which types of cost to include. The government says alcohol costs society in England and Wales £21bn – a figure that represents the costs imposed by drinkers upon others, excluding any personal effects. The total cost to society may be something like double that. A study by the National Social Marketing Centre estimated a total social cost of alcohol of £55.1bn in 2006-2007, a sum that included the costs from crime and violence, lost income and productivity, damaged family lives and the burden on health and other social services. In 2015, 167,000 years of working life were lost as a result of alcohol, according to Alcohol Change UK.

In 2016, alcohol was linked to 39% of all violent crime in England and 49% in Wales. International comparisons carried out in a study for The Lancet suggest the weighted average total cost of alcohol to society in high-income countries may be something like 2.5% of GDP. The figure for England and Wales, according to the IAS, may be perhaps 1.7%; for Scotland, 3.4%.

What is more certain is that giving up alcohol will be good for your own wallet. According to the Drinkaware charity, the average weekly household spends about £60 a month on booze. If you go for above-average binges in nightclubs, you could save much more. The average cost of a night out in the UK is £61.58, according to the UK’s largest operator of bars and clubs, The Deltic Group, reported in the Huffington Post.

How teetotal Instagrammers get their kicks

Awareness of these facts may have put youth off the booze. Some suggest price is the bigger factor – the price of alcohol has increased by 33% over the last ten years, although it remains 64% more affordable than it was in 1980, according to the NHS. But as the BCM Public Health paper says, the change is not attributable to any one factor and the causes are likely to be multi-factorial or cultural. The authors of the paper speculate that media use might be changing the way young people spend their leisure time as one factor.

According to a survey, only one in ten young people now see getting drunk as “cool”, reports Liz Connor for Irish News – the rest describe it as “pathetic”, “embarrassing” and “belonging to an older generation”. Yet teetotal Instagrammers still want to party. The level-headed youngsters and the “sober curious” are instead rocking up at gigs such as the Mindful Drinking Festival, which has recently held events in Glasgow and London. These “bring together alcohol-free beers and spirits as well as kombuchas, shrubs and elixirs in one place for people to try”, says Connor.

As festival co-founder Laura Willoughby says, “in the last two to three years there’s been this massive boom in alcohol-free drinks designed for adults, and, for me, that’s important, because once you give up drinking it doesn’t mean you suddenly want to switch to fizzy pop. I’m not 12 anymore – I want to go to a restaurant and have a drink that goes with food.”

“In terms of harm to both users themselves and to wider society, alcohol is the most harmful drug of all”

Drinks industry giants are responding to this trend with alternatives that go beyond orange juice and sugary soft drinks. Diageo, for example, has invested in fashionable non-alcoholic spirit Seedlip; Pernod Ricard is distributing non-alcoholic alt-gin Ceder’s; and Heineken has launched 0.0 – a non-alcoholic pale ale (see box below). Major retailers and bars are listening, and consumers will this year see more of these alternatives in their locals, says Connor. According to Kantar Worldpanel, sales of non-alcoholic and low-alcohol beer rose by 38% in 2018 compared to the previous year. Research firm Global Market Insights estimates that the global market for non-alcoholic beer will grow by 100% by 2024, to around $25bn.

Beyond searching out the odd trendy crowdfunded start-up, and hoping they’ll become a hit with the in-crowd before the drinks giants launch their own version, it’s not obvious how investors can react positively to this trend. But if you’ve been pepping up your portfolio with those reliable outperformers, the so-called “sin stocks”, it might be time to think again. It looks like sin is going out of fashion.


The tastiest low-alcohol and alcohol-free drinks

The industry did not do a great job with alcohol-free beers in the past, Heineken MD David Forde admits to the Daily Mail. They just didn’t taste great. But now brewers are starting to crack it. Heineken’s offering, 0.0, has been a “runaway success”, Forde says, selling

15 million bottles last year. Forde predicts sales will double in 2019, and he is launching it on draught as well as a booze-free version of its premium Italian brand, Birra Moretti. Suffolk brewery St Peter’s has also launched a draught version of its 0% golden ale. For bitter drinkers, Greene King has a low-alcohol brew based on its Old Speckled Hen.

Nirvana’s beers are an interesting addition to an increasingly diverse market, says trade magazine The Drinks Business. The big brewers tend to prioritise lager and pilsner-style brews. Nirvana, the only brewery in the UK dedicated solely to low and alcohol-free beers, produces a range of ales, lagers, stout and IPAs. For those partial to the latter, craft brewers BrewDog also have a 0.5% “hopped up brew with an authentic bitterness”.

And Erdinger’s low-alcohol offering “commands a great deal of respect among beer-loving teetotallers”, says The Drinks Business. It’s “not perfection, but it shoots pretty close to the net… with a distinctive, malty taste and a good depth of flavour”.

The original distilled non-alcoholic spirit Seedlip is now available in lots of bars and restaurants as well as from specialist retailers, says Good Housekeeping, and now comes in three different flavours. If you’re after a wine, Nosecco Spumante is an alcohol-free fizz that mimics the flavours of the Italian original. G&T lovers could try Gordon’s Ultra-Low Alcohol pre-mixed drink, which retains all the flavours of a gin and tonic, it is claimed.

For those still hoping for something of a buzz, just not from the alcohol, Three Spirit has made a plant-based zero-alcohol drink that represents a “third way”. The company says it has found plants with active compounds that work together to make you feel “blissed out” and more connected when socialising. Those living in countries or states that have legalised cannabis will have further options: Heineken’s Northern California craft brand Lagunitas and Blue Moon’s Ceria Brewing Company both have non-alcoholic brews that offer a cannabis high instead.

DryDrinker.com has a range of booze-free drinks, including some of those mentioned here.