The Light Stuff

Fancy a beer but have to 'adult' later? A Melbourne-based social health research group is paving the way for better access to lighter booze options.

By Ness Kennedy and Dave Clay

Imagine, if you will, being at a pub or bar (which shouldn’t be too much of a stretch if you’re reading this fine publication). You’re with mates or awkward work colleagues or just by yourself, but regardless of the setting; you fancy a drink or two.

However… that pesky rational voice in your head suddenly reminds you of all those things you need to do later. Life admin, food shopping, going to the gym, operating a vehicle – things that are impractical, unpleasant or just illegal to do if you’ve had a few.

Do you sigh inwardly and resign yourself to the uninspiring light beer on offer? Opt for a soda water? Or throw caution to the wind, reassign your to-do list to tomorrow and order a double IPA? While the boozy option can undoubtedly be fun, sometimes it just isn’t possible and you’re left with the light or non-alcoholic option.

Let’s unpack why many of us find this scenario unappealing…

Firstly: why do the light and non-alcoholic options at pubs and bars tend to be a bit pathetic? Secondly: where does the stigma attached to light and non-alcoholic options come from? (Which you may think was answered by the first question but stick with us, there’s more to this.)

The limited options certainly play a part, but there are less tangible cultural factors at play too. You can be unfairly marked as a Safety Sam if you’re reaching for something light or a soda water (unless you’re a bit pregnant, obviously), as these drinks tend not to shout ‘fun’ in the same way as their full-strength counterparts. If others in a group are drinking full-strength there can be an expectation to do the same, else risk blame for bringing down the mood. While social expectations might seem like they should be easy to dismiss, those tied to alcohol can be particularly strong.

In understanding how and why alcohol is consumed, and the social expectations that surround it, it’s important to acknowledge the pleasure that alcohol brings many of us, and the important role it can play in our leisure lifestyles. To quote from Trainspotting, “We wouldn’t do it [if it wasn’t pleasurable]. After all, we’re not f—ing stupid.” (That was about heroin rather than alcohol but the same logic arguably applies – alcohol is just another drug; only more legal and socially acceptable.) So if we’re going to choose lighter and non-alcoholic options, they need to be ‘fun’ – certainly much funnerer than the range on offer at our locals at present.

Fortunately, there are some exciting lighter and non-alcoholic options being produced in Australia at the moment. The problem is that awareness and access is currently quite low. Would we be more likely to choose lighter options if we had a bigger and better range to choose from, and if they were front and centre at pubs, bars and bottle shops? Data collected by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare tells us that one in two of us is keen to reduce our alcohol consumption. And we know from extensive literature on behaviour change that physical opportunity (i.e. access) is one of three essential conditions for behaviour (alongside capacity and motivation).  

In 2019, Social Health Ideas, a Melbourne-based social health research group, plans to work with venues and bottle shops to suss out the impact of improving the range, quality and promotion of lighter and non-alcoholic options. Colourful and attractive signage will be used to spruik the range to highlight that these aren’t your average light options.

From session pale ales to IPAs and fruity sours, craft breweries are bringing plenty of  midstrengths to the table.

Social Health Ideas is keen to gauge whether better access to good-quality lighter and non-alcoholic options is something drinkers across Australia are interested in. You can help inform how they proceed by completing their short survey (link below). Those who complete the survey can go into the draw to win a $100 Readings Bookshop voucher. Social Health Ideas would also love to hear from any pub, bar and bottle shop interested in being part of their 2019 project (email address below).

The Social Health Ideas team looks forward to reporting back on who likes lights : )

Complete the survey and go into the draw to win a $100 Readings voucher at surveymonkey.com/r/XZXB3TT      

Find out more at socialhealthideas.com or email socialhealthideas@gmail.com

About the contributors:

Ness Kennedy is a member of Social Health Ideas and a social health researcher with more than ten years of experience in the Alcohol and Other Drug and mental health sectors. As an alcohol enjoyer and regular designated driver, Ness would give a big thumbs-up emoji to better light and non-alcoholic options at pubs, bars and bottle shops.

Dave Clay is a member of Social Health Ideas and brings forth a veritable bounty of alcohol-related experience. Since learning the art of moderation, Dave has become one of those appalling beer snobs one should avoid at parties. He advises that this is a choice and not a side effect.