Non-alcoholic drink? Better check the fine print, consumers warned

14 August 2019 - 16:14 By Miranda Raaff
The law allows for drinks with less than 0.5% alcohol to be advertised as 'non-alcoholic', which may be problematic for people who don't want to imbibe alcohol at all.
The law allows for drinks with less than 0.5% alcohol to be advertised as 'non-alcoholic', which may be problematic for people who don't want to imbibe alcohol at all.
Image: /Joshua Resnick

A new trend has emerged with alcohol companies producing non-alcoholic versions of their drinks. Because of this, more complaints are expected to be lodged with the Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB), the board said on Wednesday.

This comes after Distell Limited appeared before the board over a TV commercial for its new Savanna “non-alcoholic” cider, which in fact contains 0.3% alcohol.

“I have raised this with the Association for Alcohol Responsibility and Education (Aware) as an issue that we need to look at, and how to take it forward,” said ARB CEO Gail Schimmel on Wednesday.

“With this trend, we need to find a way to protect consumers within the contexts of the current law. It’s something that we need to look at carefully.”

Schimmel agreed that reviewing liquor legislation could be a possible solution.

Under South African legislation, the “non-alcoholic” label is in fact legal and in accordance with the Liquor Products Act, which states that drinks with less than 0.5% alcohol are considered to be “non-alcoholic”.

Schimmel said the advertising of drinks containing traces of alcohol as “non-alcoholic” mostly affected recovering alcoholics and those who did not consume alcohol for religious reasons.

“Consumers need to check the labelling of non-alcoholic beverages. Often non-alcoholic products do contain traces of alcohol,” she said.

The Savanna matter has sparked conversation on social media, with some calling for the Liquor Act to be reviewed.

Distell appeared before the ARB after two complaints were lodged against its TV commercial for the drink.

The opening scene of the commercial shows two men sitting at a bar drinking. Two patrons react in a surprised way when a traffic officer in uniform rides into the bar on his motorcycle, orders and drinks what appears to be an alcoholic drink. He looks at the two patrons before riding off.

One patron comments, “That’s a bit unconventional,” and the other agrees: “Savanna with no alcohol breaks all the rules.”

The men then glance at a pilot in uniform, sitting behind them also drinking from a bottle similar to theirs.

The message, “Not for persons under the age of 18”, appears at the bottom of the screen throughout the commercial.

In the final shot, the words "new non-alcoholic", "the rules don’t apply" and "Savanna, the unapologetic cider" appear on the screen.

The first complainant submitted that the commercial portrays the cider as non-alcoholic, when it actually contains alcohol. He said it wrongly sent a message to the public that even someone on duty could consume such a product. He said the disclaimer “Not for persons under the age of 18” made Distell's claim that it is non-alcoholic questionable.

The second complainant said the advert was misleading as the drink contained 0.3% alcohol and painted a confusing image of a traffic officer drinking an alcoholic drink and then riding a motorbike.

In its submission to the board, Distell said the product contained no more than 0.3% alcohol by volume, and that legislation allows for products with less than 0.5% alcohol to be considered non-alcoholic.

“At not more than 0.3% alcohol/volume for Savanna non-alcoholic, one could deduce that a consumer would need to drink approximately 20 330ml Savanna non-alcoholic products within an hour to reach the legal alcohol limit,” said Distell.

“The commercial does not in way suggest over-consumption or irresponsible consumption,” it said, adding that it included responsible messaging to promote the product to adults and avoid appealing to those who are underage.

In its decision, the ARB said it could not make a ruling that contradicted legislation, but requested that Distell remove or amend its advertising.

“The directorate nonetheless has discomfort with the advertising of products which contain a small amount of alcohol as ‘no alcohol’ or ‘0%’ alcohol. It accepts that legislation allows for these products to be labelled as ‘non-alcoholic’ and to declare the actual alcohol levels,” it said.

Distell did respond to queries from TimesLIVE on Wednesday by the time of publication.