Dec. 19, 2000 -- Is nonalcoholic beer a harmless beverage or a gateway drug? Opinions vary widely when it comes to teenage use of nonalcoholic beers and wines.
Some experts, like Joseph Wells, MD, a pediatrician at the Maryvale Pediatric Clinic in Phoenix, charge that 'near beer' gives kids an opportunity to develop alcohol habits since anyone can go into a supermarket and buy it. Wells says this is similar to something he noticed 10 years ago: "I just noticed that at a lot of family functions and restaurants, they often had this bubbly, sweet-tasting drink kids could have while the adults had champagne."
Examples are everywhere, says Wells. For example, how about a candy cigarette to have with your fake drink? And what's the harm with these harmless substances? "Innocent habits often turn into bad habits," he says. And in the case of near beer, it's just a few feet of refrigerator space from the real thing.
The beverage industry, as might be expected, disagrees with the notion that near beer is an alcoholic kiddie lure. "Nonalcoholic beer is an alternative for adults, who choose to have the taste of beer without the alcohol," says Jeff Becker, president of The Beer Institute, an industry trade group. "Young people have not, nor do we anticipate they would, gravitate to nonalcoholic beer. It is an extremely large leap of faith to assume -- and it is an assumption -- that any young person would even drink a nonalcoholic beer. ... It's the regular beer we've got to get a handle on."
But Wells says he knows of at least some children who've been drinking nonalcoholic beer. The adolescent son of a nurse he knows served it at a party.
Still, the larger question is whether use of 'innocent' substances can lead to bigger things. Researchers contacted by WebMD say in the case of fake beer, there is no evidence to prove it. "I know of no data suggesting that nonalcoholic beer serves as a primer for drinking real beer," says William DeJong, PhD, of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention at Harvard University. "Of more concern are alcoholic mixed drinks or wine coolers that are sold in cans and bottles. These products often mask the taste of the alcohol, which makes it easier for preteens and teens to slowly habituate to drinking. In some cases, they represent a bridge between soda pop and traditional alcoholic beverages."
"From a research point of view, it's a moot point," says Albert Pawlowski, PhD, vice president of the Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation, an industry-funded institution. "There are so many other factors that lead to consumption. Peer pressure is one. The other thing is, kids who are under age have no problem getting beer. A lot of merchants sell alcohol without carding. Or they have older siblings [who will buy it]." DeJong agrees: "We have an age 21 law in the U.S. that is largely unenforced."
Against that backdrop, if teens are drinking just nonalcoholic beers, is that such a bad thing? Maybe, says Edward Jacobs, MD, chairman of the department of pediatrics at the Everett (Washington) Clinic. "Anything that can stimulate the concept that to have a fulfilling, successful, social, sexual, or daily experience, you need alcohol -- adolescents will [absorb] that image." So nonalcoholic beers serve as somewhat of a training ground, says Jacobs.
As for the alcohol industry's claims of innocence with the products: "If you look at the commercials, you don't see a 63-year-old man sitting down at a barbecue and having a beer." You see buff models, Jacobs says, having a good time.
But DeJong looks at just the facts: "I know of no evidence yet revealed that suggests that nonalcoholic beverages were introduced into the marketplace as a means of enticing kids to drink."