Why do you need ID to buy alcohol-free beer and other “alcohol substitute” drinks? Find out why pubs, bars and retailers give many alcohol-free drinks the same restrictions as alcoholic ones.
These days, it’s no surprise to need ID when you buy alcohol, even if you’re on the wrong side of 30 like me.
What we don’t expect is to have to show ID to buy alcohol-free beer.
After all, if there’s no alcohol in it, anyone should be able to buy it right?
If you’re a regular buyer of alcohol-free beer, you’ll probably know this isn’t the case. In many pubs, bars and shops, alcohol-free drinks are treated the same as alcoholic drinks.
This means no service to anyone who can’t prove they’re above the legal drinking age and often no service outside of licensing or alcohol sale hours.
In this article, we’ll look at why retailers treat many alcohol-free and non-alcoholic drinks the same as alcoholic drinks. We’ll focus on UK retailers, but what we cover is also applicable in other regions including Europe and North America.
Why you usually need ID to buy alcohol-free beer
The first thing to highlight is that alcohol-free beer does contain some alcohol – anything from trace amounts to around 0.5% ABV (alcohol by volume).
This isn’t why retailers restrict the sale of alcohol-free beer, because:
- In most regions, including the UK and many US states, drinks under 0.5% ABV aren’t legally considered “alcohol” and aren’t subject to the same restrictions as alcoholic drinks
- Everyday foods and drinks such as ripe bananas and bread contain similar amounts of alcohol and they’re not restricted
Why then do retailers treat alcohol-free beers the same as alcoholic drinks? Are they just being difficult on purpose?
Not really – they restrict the sale of alcohol-free beer for two main reasons:
- To avoid promoting alcohol to children
- To make it easier to enforce rules regarding alcoholic drinks
Let’s delve a little deeper into each of these reasons.
Avoiding promoting alcohol to children
Whether you drink alcohol or not, you’ll likely agree that we shouldn’t promote alcohol to minors.
What’s this got to do with drinks that don’t contain alcohol?
Alcohol-free beer may not contain much – if any – alcohol. But the packaging and the drink itself is almost indistinguishable from alcoholic beer. And although there are many producers that only produce alcohol-free beer, lots of alcohol-free and non-alcoholic beers are produced by companies that also produce alcoholic drinks.
This means that promoting “alcohol substitute” drinks such as alcohol-free beer to minors – including allowing them to buy it – could indirectly promote similar products to them that do contain alcohol.
Two alcohol organisations that have publicly available policies about the promotion and sale of non-alcoholic drinks to minors are the corporate arm of brands like Budweiser and Beck’s, AB-Inbev, and the Portman Group, a UK trade group of alcoholic drinks producers.
AB-Inbev’s Responsible Marketing and Communications Code, which identifies how the company will prevent its products appealing to those under the legal drinking age, specifically mentions that covers includes alcohol-free and non-alcoholic products.
The Responsible Marketing and Communications Code (RMCC) applies to all forms of brand marketing and commercial communication for all AB InBev products that contain alcohol, use an alcohol trading name, or are an alcohol-free or non-alcohol beer product.AB-Inbev’s Responsible Marketing and Communications Code
The Portman Group’s voluntary Code of Practice on the Responsible Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks also covers non-alcoholic products.
It says, “…if a drink below 0.5% ABV shares the same brand or branding, or is a variant of a drink that is subject to the Code, then it is the view of the Advisory Service that the spirit of the Code will apply in the same way to that product.”
Tesco, Lidl, Aldi and Asda didn’t respond to my requests for information on their policies on the promotion and sale of alcohol-free beer. But it’s clear that they and other retailers are taking a similar approach to AB-Inbev and the Portman Group regarding the promotion and sale of alcohol-free beer in their stores.
Co-op’s approach focuses on its reputation with customers as well as the availability of alcohol substitute products to children.
A spokesperson for Co-op said: “As a responsible retailer we voluntarily restrict the sale of non-alcoholic drink products which resemble a beer, wine or spirit, as we do not want to give the impression to customers that people under 18 are being permitted to purchase products that contain alcohol.”
As a responsible retailer we voluntarily restrict the sale of non-alcoholic drink products which resemble a beer, wine or spirit…Co-op
Enforcing rules regarding alcoholic drinks
Another reason why pubs, bars and retailers often treat alcohol-free beer the same as products that contain alcohol is to make it easier to enforce rules regarding alcoholic drinks.
We’ve already highlighted that the packaging of alcohol-free beer is almost identical to that of beer that contains alcohol.
This isn’t much of an issue in shops, where point-of-sale systems can flag up the differences between alcohol-free and alcoholic beer for staff to prevent them selling alcoholic products to minors by mistake. (The knock-on effect of this is it also affects the availability of alcohol-free drinks where the sale of alcohol is restricted to specific days or hours of the day.)
But it can be an issue in pubs and bars where owners are responsible for what people drink on the premises, as well as what they buy. Here, it makes sense for them to treat alcohol-free beer the same as alcoholic drinks to monitor what customers are drinking.
For example, the UK’s Wetherspoon pub company doesn’t sell alcohol-free beer to minors. It says, “it can be difficult for staff to distinguish between customers who are drinking alcohol and those drinking non-alcohol products.”
…it can be difficult for staff to distinguish between customers who are drinking alcohol and those drinking non-alcohol products.Wetherspoon
Over to you
Selling alcohol-free beer under 0.5% to minors isn’t illegal in most regions. And getting asked for ID when buying alcohol-free beer can be annoying, especially if you don’t have any on you.
However, it seems that retailers are focused on society’s best interests by voluntarily restricting the sale of alcohol-free beer. Their ultimate aim is to protect children from the dangers of alcohol.
In the future, we might even see legislation regarding the sale of “alcohol substitute” products and children. After all, retailers voluntarily restricted the sale of e-cigarettes to children before it became law. The same could happen with alcohol-free and non-alcoholic beer as they become more and more popular.
But is alcohol-free beer really a danger to minors? Or do “alcohol substitute” drinks without alcohol actually promote healthy habits?