SCOTS are set to become guinea pigs for a swathe of low-alcohol beers and wines as the drinks industry teams up with the Scottish Executive to tackle problem drinking.
Industry insiders say that a number of large companies are building up a portfolio of reduced-alcohol beverages to trial in Scotland as the country becomes a test bed for responsible drinking policies.
Sales of low-alcohol beers rose by 4% last year and analysts predict that growth could move into double-digits over the course of 2007.
The news comes on the back of a partnership agreement between the Executive and representatives of the drinks industry.
The agreement commits the industry to pilot low-alcohol alternative drinks in the Scottish market.
Scottish & Newcastle has already said it sees a significant business opportunity in low- alcohol beer and is determined to launch a reduced-strength product in the future.
It already produces a non- alcoholic version of Kronenbourg for the French market and in Baltika Zero has one of the largest selling non-alcoholic lagers in Russia.
Diageo, the current leader in the sector with long-standing brand Kaliber, said no decision had yet been made but admitted it was exploring all options.
Rachael Robertson, government affairs manager for Diageo, said: "All partners will aim to identify opportunities to pilot low-alcohol alternatives in the Scottish market and this will be taken into consideration for all relevant product test programmes Diageo undertakes in the future."
Low-alcohol lagers initially failed to take off when they were introduced in Britain in the 1980s as drinkers were turned off by the taste.
Compared with other parts of Europe the UK has always had a relatively small market for low-alcohol and non-alcoholic beers - figures from the British Beer and Pub Association show that the market is less than 0.1%.
But modern brewing techniques allow production of low- and mid-strength beers which, brewers claim, taste the same as traditional drinks.
In recent months a number of brewers have introduced lighter alternatives to the UK market in an attempt to inject some life into a sluggish market.
Molson Coors has launched a low alcohol version of Carling lager, called C2, with a 2% alcohol content, compared with the 4.1% of normal Carling.
InBev has been trialling a lemon-flavoured version of Beck's called Green Lemon - which has a 2.5% alcohol content, half that of the normal brand - in more than 200 Tesco stores for the past six months. It was launched in Germany in 2005 and follows the introduction of Beck's Vier, a 4% version of the lager brought in as a stepping stone between mainstream and premium brands.
Guinness is also currently trying out a mid-strength version of its stout in Ireland.
Jeremy Beadles, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said the pilot scheme in Scotland was not limited to beers. He expects low-alcohol wine also to be introduced.
He said: "Shortly we will see the launch of an 8.5% wine that will be introduced in pubs and restaurants. A number of retailers are now actively looking at stocking low-alcohol wines and how best to promote them.
"But businesses will only do this if it is commercially viable and consumers want it. They are not going to produce products that consumers don't like and don't want."
Last month a report from the Office for National Statistics showed that in 2002-04, the alcohol-related death rate for Scots was around double that for the UK as a whole.
It revealed that, while cirrhosis rates are falling across Europe, even in traditional wine-drinking areas such as France and Italy, in Scotland they are spiralling higher.
In 2002-04, there were 39.1 alcohol-related deaths per 100,000 men in Scotland, compared with a UK figure of 17.4. Among Scots women, the rate was 15.7 per 100,000, compared with 8.1 for the UK.
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