As Qatar World Cup Goes Dry: Do Alcohol Bans Make Us Safer?

Alcohol ban in the stadiums became the latest controversy to engulf the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Research shows removing alcohol from sports venues may not significantly curb fan violence. However, non-alcoholic beer can make us feel almost as good as an alcoholic one.

Just two days before the first match, FIFA, Fédération Internationale de Football Association, announced that it is removing sales points of beer from all eight World Cup stadiums perimeters. Alcoholic beverages remain available at the FIFA Fan Festival and other licensed venues, such as bars, restaurants, and hotels.

"Host country authorities and FIFA will continue to ensure that the stadiums and surrounding areas provide an enjoyable, respectful and pleasant experience for all fans," FIFA tweeted.

According to the Qatar Cultural awareness guide, "alcohol is not part of local culture." In this Muslim-majority country, alcoholic beverages are not completely banned as in neighboring Saudi Arabia. However, drinking outside designated areas and being drunk in public is an offense.

"Well, this is awkward," tweeted a beer-maker Budweiser, after learning about the alcohol ban in the World Cup stadiums.

The company, which has exclusive rights to sell beer at the World Cup, later deleted the tweet, but FIFA was quick to assure that Bud Zero, a non-alcoholic beer, will be sold in all the stadiums.

Does alcohol make fans violent?

The issue of the alcohol ban has been brought up during the FIFA World Cup before. In Brazil, sales of beer during soccer matches have been illegal since 2003 in an effort to curb fan violence.

However, after FIFA insisted on removing the ban before the 2014 competition, Brazil's president signed a temporary amendment allowing beer sales in World Cup stadiums.

"Alcoholic drinks are part of the FIFA World Cup, so we're going to have them. Excuse me if I sound a bit arrogant, but that's something we won't negotiate," FIFA's then-General Secretary, Jerome Valcke, said in 2012.

Despite a two-decade-long alcohol ban, the number of deaths resulting from the clashes of violent soccer fans in Brazil remained the highest in the world. During 2012-2017, in some of the most violent years, 86 deaths were recorded. Researchers, however, note that violence has grown "due to the country's increasingly violent social contexts, impunity, and authorities' neglect."

Football fan drinking beer

The UK also sought to curb hooliganism by introducing the Sporting Events Act in 1985, banning the consumption of alcohol within view of the playing area during soccer games. Last year, the country's former sports minister Tracey Crouch recommended removing the ban, believing it makes people drink a lot of alcohol quickly.

Her arguments did not convince Chief constable Mark Roberts of Cheshire, who said that lifting the ban would only give fans 90 minutes extra time to drink. "And more alcohol causes more problems," he added.

The prohibition did not prevent violence after the English national team lost the 2020 Euro Cup final, when drunk and drugged-up fans stormed the Wembley stadium, clashed with Italian fans, and engaged in racist abuse of black players. According to the independent review, fan behavior “recklessly endangered lives."

New Zealand also saw a problem of aggressive soccer fan behavior during sports events. In 1997, a conference on safer event management was held in Dunedin. Participants, who included representatives of police and health promotion staff, among others, concluded that alcohol sales should generally be allowed, as "people are the problem, not alcohol."

They also recommended that points of sale should be smaller but more numerous "to reduce demand at each point."

Bad influence on children

While the World Cup games attract thousands to the stadiums, millions watch the championship at their homes.

A 2022 study from the UK examined public exposure to alcohol and junk food advertising during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Thirteen games broadcasted in the UK were viewed by between 0.1 and 30% of the country's adults and 0.02 to 17.3% of children. Budweiser was among the brands that appeared most often.

According to the study authors, advertising during sporting events has been identified "as the dominant medium" for promoting alcohol and drinking among the general population.

The Scottish Government is currently considering banning alcohol advertising from sports events, as well as billboards and buses.

"There is clear evidence that adverts which glamorize drinking can encourage young people to drink alcohol and have a detrimental impact on those in recovery from problem alcohol use," Public Health Minister Maree Todd said.

Alcohol producers spend millions of dollars to sponsor big sports competitions and clubs. Among the top ten most active beverage brands in sports sponsorship in 2022, three are beer-makers: Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, and Molson Coors, according to the latest Sportcal Sponsorship Sector Report: Alcoholic Beverages.

“Alcohol brands, and specifically beer brands, began to associate themselves with sport in the hope of reaching its core target audience, namely older males who didn’t respond as strongly to traditional advertising,” Conrad Wiacek, Head of Sponsorship at Sportcal, told Verdict in 2018.

Sponsorship sometimes goes differently than planned. During the Euro Cup 2020 press conference, French soccer player Paul Pogba removed a bottle of non-alcoholic Heineken beer that had been placed in front of him. A day before, Portuguese soccer star Christiano Ronaldo removed two bottles of Coca-Cola and said “water,” possibly encouraging people to choose a healthier alternative.

Does non-alcoholic beer make us feel good?

Alcohol influences our brain's reward and pleasure center, making us relaxed and happy. Some studies looked at whether non-alcoholic beer could have a similar impact on us.

A 2018 research from Wageningen University found no difference in brain reward centers when participants drank alcoholic beer and carbonated water. The findings suggest that the taste of beer, not the presence of alcohol, determines the consumption experience.

"This may mean that consumers get the same satisfaction from drinking non-alcoholic and alcoholic beer, as long as the taste is as close to 'real' beer as possible. This may help reduce alcohol consumption, but this would have to be researched further with test subjects who are aware of which type of beer they're drinking," said Prof. Dr. Paul Smeets in a press release.

In another study from 2013, participants received a very small amount of their preferred beer — 15 milliliters — over a 15-minute time period. Using positron emission tomography (PET), researchers discovered that the taste of beer triggered the release of dopamine — a chemical that makes us feel good — in the brain without any effect from alcohol itself.

A small online experiment from 2020 demonstrated that almost half (49% of participants) chose non-alcoholic drinks when their availability was increased, and only one in four (26%) participants chose alcohol-free beverages when their availability was decreased.

However, a drink labeled as non-alcoholic is not always alcohol-free. A study from 2010 looked at ethanol concentrations in Canadian beverages claiming to contain no or low alcohol content.

Almost a third (29%) of them contained ethanol levels higher than the declared concentration on their label. Six beverages claiming to contain no alcohol were found to contain greater than 1% ethanol.

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