Instead of Convincing People to Drink Less, Just Water Down Everyone’s Beer

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Photo: Armin Zogbaum/Getty Images

Every year, according to the World Health Organization, some 3.3 million people die from alcohol-related issues. The challenge in curbing that number, though, is that every approach seems to rely on getting people to act against their own desires or perceived best interests. Convince everyone to adopt healthier drinking habits? That’d be a Herculean feat of persuasion. Make it harder to buy booze? The alcohol industry is going to push back in a big way.

But instead of focusing on widespread behavior change, why not home in on the root of the problem itself? That’s the argument of a new review paper in the journal The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology, which makes the case that one of the most efficient way to reduce the public-health threat of alcohol may be to just make drinks less alcoholic.

“Overviews of the reduction of harmful use of alcohol emphasize the so-called best buys — i.e., increases in price via taxation, decreases in availability, and bans on marketing and advertisements,” the authors write, but “the policy interventions implemented by the alcohol industry usually have negative or mixed evidence at best.” However, reduction of alcoholic strength might constitute a unique situation, whereby the interests of public health (in reducing overall consumption of alcohol) and the alcohol industry (in achieving profit) coincide.

Or, put more simply: “The proposal presents a unique situation, where public health interests in reducing alcohol consumption is not in conflict with the alcohol industry,” lead author Jürgen Rehm, the director of Toronto’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, said in a statement.

There’s some evidence to suggest their proposal might actually work. For one thing, it’s happened before: In the latter half of the 20th century, the paper notes, all boozy beverages saw a decrease in average alcohol content (except for wine, which followed that pattern until the ‘80s, and then started becoming more potent again).

And, perhaps more important, most people probably wouldn’t even notice the change. Past research has shown that we typically can’t discern between regular brews and beer that’s low-alcohol or even alcohol-free. (In one 2014 study, even frat bros weren’t able to tell the difference.) That applies to both taste and how buzzed you feel after one drink — but before researchers begin looking into this plan more seriously, it might be a good idea to define what “one drink” even means, anyway.