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Are zero-alcohol drinks a type of gateway drug for teens?

A study led by Flinders University has revealed the complex feelings parents harbor towards the burgeoning availability of zero-alcohol drinks in Australia, and the potential impact on adolescents. The rise of these alcohol-free alternatives has not only expanded the market but also introduced a new layer of complexity for parents nationwide.

Amidst this expanding landscape, lead author Nathan Harrison of the National Center for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA) at Flinders points out the ambiguity surrounding the influence of these beverages on teenagers. 

New challenge for parents 

“We already know that conversations around alcohol can be uncomfortable and tricky to broach, especially when it comes to teenagers,” he said. “Now parents face the additional challenge of navigating zero-alcohol drinks that look, and taste, like the real thing.”

“Our research found that parents feel like they don’t have enough information to make an informed decision, and are conflicted on whether alcohol-free alternatives are suitable, healthy or possibly harmful for teenagers.” 

Zero-alcohol drinks as a gateway

The similarity of these drinks to alcoholic beverages has led some parents to worry about normalizing alcohol consumption among their children. 

“Parents are sometimes confused by zero-alcohol drinks. They wonder if giving them to their children might normalize alcohol because these drinks look so similar. As a result, around half of the parents we spoke to were concerned that these drinks could result in increased alcohol consumption,” Harrison added.

Normalizing alcohol consumption 

The study highlights parents’ apprehensions and decision-making dilemmas, with one parent arguing that alcohol-free drinks work “like a gateway drug, you know, that they start on the zero-alcohol and they wanna try the real thing.” 

Another parent shared similar concerns, saying that “if it’s the whole ‘being cool because you’re drinking alcohol’ sort of link, it’s almost in the same realm as being harmful, you know: it’s glorifying, it’s normalizing everything about alcohol.”

Confusion over alcohol guidelines 

Study co-author Ashlea Bartram from the College of Medicine and Public Health at Flinders led a comprehensive analysis of over 1,100 parents’ views, finding that confusion over alcohol guidelines often led parents to consider providing zero-alcohol products to their teenagers

“Research has shown that delaying the introduction of alcohol to children can reduce the likelihood of binge drinking and alcohol-related issues later in life,” she explained, advocating for cautious parental guidance. 

“Many parents want to do what they can to minimize harms from alcohol to their children. For now, we advise a precautionary approach and recommend that parents do not provide zero-alcohol drinks to their adolescents,” she advised, emphasizing the importance of protective measures against potential risks.

Marketing strategies of zero-alcohol drinks 

Christine Morris, Prevention and Advocacy Manager at Cancer Council SA, highlighted the unique marketing strategies of zero-alcohol beverages, which are not subject to the same restrictions as alcoholic drinks. 

As Morris put it, “zero-alcohol drinks are allowed to be marketed and sold in ways that regular alcoholic drinks cannot. Any amount of any type of alcohol increases the risk of seven types of cancer, and it’s important to make sure that children and young people are not exposed to advertising from alcohol companies that could put them at risk of harm.”

This study – published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health – sheds light on the nuanced concerns parents have regarding zero-alcohol beverages and their adolescent children, urging a more informed and cautious approach to these products amidst growing popularity and market presence.


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