Brewing Trouble


There's no pleasing some people. Cashing in on the trend toward sobriety and health consciousness, America's two biggest beer companies, Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing, have introduced nonalcoholic malt beverages. Using slogans such as "Keep Your Edge," they are marketing the products as alternatives for those who like the taste of beer but want to avoid the effects of alcohol.

These ostensibly socially conscious advertising campaigns have attracted vocal opposition—not from beer-guzzling purists, but from the alcohol-control lobby. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, for example, complains that the new beers contain trace amounts of alcohol. Under federal regulations, a beer is "nonalcoholic" if its alcohol content is less than 0.5 percent, a standard that must appear on the labels of such beverages.

But that's not good enough for the NCADD, which worries about the effect of nonalcoholic beer on members of "high-risk groups": reformed alcoholics, pregnant women, and minors. It wants commercials for the beverages to carry warnings about their alcohol content. Otherwise, the group argues, the advertising is deceptive.

"It ignores the serious health and safety problems caused by alcohol," says NCADD spokesperson Jeffrey Hon. Yet Anheuser-Busch notes that the amount of alcohol in these products is comparable to that found in some soft drinks and fruit juices. Furthermore, a 1985–86 study commissioned by the FTC found no significant physical risks from such beverages. Still, Hon says, you have to consider the psychological impact on vulnerable individuals, for whom a bottle of nonalcoholic beer might be the first step toward a relapse.

Jeff Becker, a spokesperson for the Beer Institute, says such scenarios are unrealistic. "You are responsible for whether or not you drink," he says. "You choose whether to abstain. We've got to give recovering [alcoholics] some credit. What the [NCADD] seems to be saying is that these people can't say no."

The NCADD also argues that nonalcoholic brews will entice children and teenagers into drinking the real thing. "It does promote the whole concept of drinking alcoholic beverages," Hon says, comparing the malt beverages to candy cigarettes.

Becker is skeptical. He says he doesn't know too many kids who would rush out to buy a product whose main attraction is its ability to keep you sober.