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Could non-alcoholic pubs ever catch on in the UK?

It goes without saying that Brits love a drink. People in the UK get drunk more than anywhere else in the world, according to a study released by Global Drug Survey (GDS) in May of this year, with respondents saying that, on average, they got drunk 33 times in the last 12 months.

The survey of 123,814 people across 30 countries found that, of participants from English-speaking countries, people reported getting drunk most often in the UK by as much as 51 times in the last year, compared with the USA (50 times), Canada (48 times) and Australia (47 times).

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That’s a lot of hangovers for us Brits, it seems.

But in July ‘Big Four’ grocer Sainsburys’ hosted the Clean Vic, a two-day pop-up pub serving a range of beers, wines and mocktails which are all entirely non-alcoholic or have an ABV of 0.5%.

But why? Considering the UK’s global ranking when it comes to having a weekly tipple, who could these zero-alcohol pubs be catering to?

More people than you would initially think, as a study into non-drinking by the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London revealed that rates of non-drinking among young people in the UK increased from 18% in 2005 to 29% in 2015.

This was an analysis of repeated cross-sectional surveys of 9,699 people aged 16 to 24 in England, and was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal BMC Public Health. According to the NHS, researchers who carried out the study said their results “might suggest that the norms around non-drinking are changing, and this behaviour is becoming more mainstream among young people”.

Researchers also said it is “difficult to pinpoint a single factor” behind the decline in drinking, but speculated it may be because of stricter licensing laws, increased awareness of the harms of alcohol, and changes in the way young people spend their leisure time – for example, using social media rather than meeting in a pub or bar.

Not only that, in 2017, 20% of the UK population reported not drinking at all, and overall consumption has fallen by around 16% since 2004, according to research by Alcohol Change UK.

So why the change?

GDS participants who drank alcohol in the last 12 months said they regretted getting drunk on 20% of occasions, and overall, 38% of the participants who drank alcohol in the last 12 months wanted to drink less next year. But while we all endeavour to drink less after a crazy night out, the fear of missing out is what drives many people back into the pub.

According to a survey by Sainburys’, nearly four in 10 (38%) of people have tried to cut down on their alcohol intake in the last year and nearly a quarter (24%) say they see their friends less as a result. The most regularly missed occasions for this reason include a friend’s hen or stag do (15%) and a work colleagues’ birthday or leaving drinks (12%).

As a result, one third (33%) have lost touch with friends since cutting down their alcohol intake – 14% have lost touch with at least three. And almost half (46%) miss spending time in the pub.

Sainsburys’ pop-up shows that non-alcoholic pubs could potentially fill this void, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a boring affair. Customers at the event had the chance to try the UK’s first non-alcoholic dark distillate, Celtic Soul, which offered a “refined and sophisticated drinks experience that takes the appeal of whisky”. It was offered alongside over 20 types of beverages, including a range of beers such as Lucky Saint, mocktails such as an Everleaf – a non-alcoholic aperitif – spritz, and a collection of wines.

Millie Gooch, of the Sober Girl Society, said she didn’t let cutting out the booze stop her from going to the pub. “Not only do I still socialise in the evenings but as well as remembering my night, no boozing means I don’t need to write off the next day for a hangover,” she says, “I always have Sunday morning plans now because I know I’ll stick to them – even if it’s just the gym. Having grown up non-alcoholic drinks I can enjoy with my friends means I really don’t feel like I’m missing out at all.”

So while drinking still remains one of the UK’s favourite pastimes, it is clear that there is a growing percentage of younger people who are shunning alcohol but are still eager to spend time in the pub – signalling a significant change in the drinking market. One that pub and bar owners would be wise to keep an eye on.

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