Why al­co­hol-free spir­its are the WORST thing to give a tee­to­taller

They look – and taste – like the real deal. But a re­cov­er­ing al­co­holic warns...

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - Health Weath & Holidays - By Fi Cot­ter Craig

EIGHT years ago I stopped drink­ing. Not be­cause I hated it but be­cause I loved ev­ery­thing about it – the an­tic­i­pa­tion of the first sip, the rit­ual of choos­ing a glass and even the clink of the ice as it tum­bled into it. The prob­lem was, one was never enough but the ten or 12 I’d had by the end of the night were def­i­nitely too many.

Work­ing in the fran­tic world of tele­vi­sion, booze was my an­ti­dote of choice to its stresses. On top of that, I used to be very over­weight, and I think drink­ing helped me over­come my shame of be­ing fat.

I was an al­co­holic, like my mother (I do think there is a ge­netic el­e­ment) but a func­tion­ing one. When I stopped drink­ing I started func­tion­ing much bet­ter: I’ve worked on Bafta-win­ning tele­vi­sion se­ries such as The Is­land with Bear Grylls and Der­ren Brown’s Apoca­lypse.

Now I’m al­co­hol-free, you might think a zero-al­co­hol drink that looks like the real thing but has none of the toxic in­gre­di­ent that used to do so much dam­age would be top of my fes­tive sea­son shop­ping list.

But it isn’t. In fact, nu­mer­ous ad­dic­tion ex­perts, along with other friends who have al­co­hol prob­lems, all agree: it should be the last thing you give some­one who’s tee­to­tal this Christ­mas.

The dan­gers were brought home to me last New Year when an old friend came to stay at my home in Fort Wil­liam.

He is in­sanely gen­er­ous and brought enough al­co­hol to keep a small ho­tel go­ing for a month and, as a spe­cial treat for me, a case of al­co­hol-free wine.

Surely the per­fect Hog­manay present for some­one who ‘doesn’t drink’ be­cause they’re an ad­dict – and for roughly half a mil­lion Bri­tons like me?

I hadn’t re­alised such a thing as al­co­hol­free wine ex­isted, or that there was a grow­ing mar­ket in such drinks cre­ated for peo­ple who want some­thing a bit more grown-up than or­ange squash to sip at a party.

And it’s not just wines and beer. In re­cent years, a slew of gin and ruma-likes have launched, with so­phis­ti­cated mar­ket­ing cam­paigns and beau­ti­ful bot­tles that look just like the real thing. The herbal, or spiced con­coc­tions they con­tain also have that com­plex, of­ten bit­ter ‘bite’ that booze brings to a G&T or cock­tail.

What I failed to an­tic­i­pate was the ef­fect that bot­tle of non-al­co­holic wine, given to me by my well-mean­ing friend, would have on me, even be­fore the snap of the screw-top.

In ev­ery pos­si­ble way it looked like the real thing: at­trac­tive bot­tle, clever name – Eis­berg – and re­al­is­tic la­belling.

To say I spent that whole af­ter­noon look­ing for­ward to that first drink, and be­ing part of the party in a way I hadn’t been for years, would be an un­der­state­ment.

Be­hav­iour pat­terns that had lain dor­mant for al­most eight years were back, that ‘wine’ pack­aged and la­belled like the real thing had an ef­fect that was a vis­ceral, pos­ses­sive, al­most sex­ual power.

I be­came ob­sessed, fetishis­ing about the rit­ual that lay ahead, think­ing about what glass I’d drink it in and the taste of the tart, chilled liq­uid.

Later, I took a bot­tle with me into a room and drank the whole thing in se­cret – some­thing I used to do with real booze. I gulped down the first glass, closely fol­lowed by a se­cond, third and fourth. Then I re­joined the party and opened an­other bot­tle, pre­tend­ing it was my first. Al­though I didn’t feel drunk, of course, I felt good. And then the penny dropped. Had I con­tin­ued, I’d have been on the gin by mid­night. I had re­verted to my al­co­holic self with­out a millil­itre of al­co­hol pass­ing my lips.

Most peo­ple think about al­co­holism as be­ing a con­sump­tion is­sue and, yes, that’s part of it. But it also comes with sub­stan­tial be­havioural bag­gage.

Cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­a­pist Anna Al­bright says: ‘I’d never rec­om­mend zero-al­co­hol wines and spir­its to any of my pa­tients with al­co­hol ad­dic­tions. They are a per­fect re­minder of un­happy times as well as the strug­gles of giv­ing up. When al­co­hol is used as an un­healthy cop­ing mech­a­nism it takes a huge amount of strength and de­ter­mi­na­tion to give up, so the very last thing that’s needed is a re­minder of painful times.’

But there may be more go­ing on here than a sim­ple psy­cho­log­i­cal re­sponse. In 2013, sci­en­tists at In­di­ana Uni­ver­sity School of Medicine scanned the brains of 49 men as they tasted ei­ther beer, or a non-al­co­holic fizzy drink.

The re­sults showed that the taste of beer alone, long be­fore the al­co­hol in it had the chance to take ef­fect, in­stantly trig­gered the re­lease of dopamine, a feel­good chem­i­cal in the brain. In other words, that first sip of a wine or beer – even if it’s al­co­hol-free – re­minds us of the thrill and re­ward we used to get from booze, some­thing that can only make it harder for the likes of me to re­main ‘on the wagon’.

You might ar­gue it’s a good thing that al­co­hol-free drinks don’t just taste like the real thing but pro­vide the same sort of plea­sure. But for those try­ing to ab­stain, that’s not a healthy mes­sage.

And here’s why: sci­en­tists found once the vol­un­teers had tasted the beer, they craved more of it.

‘Break­ing an ad­dic­tion is of­ten about ad­dress­ing that 30 sec­onds or so where you feel the temp­ta­tion to re­vert,’ says psy­chother­a­pist Phillip Hod­son, a mem­ber of the Bri­tish As­so­ci­a­tion of Coun­selling and Psy­chother­apy. ‘It’s what you do at that mo­ment that mat­ters. Some peo­ple will feel an in­creased urge to have a real drink if they taste a non-al­co­holic one.

‘For oth­ers, hav­ing a looka­like drink lets them fit in with their friends who are drink­ing.’

Those of us with dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ships with al­co­hol have ab­so­lutely no de­sire to re­visit our drink­ing days. If you’re think­ing any of these sexy new drinks would make a great present for the non-drinkers in your life – they won’t.

Choco­lates would be a safer bet, but not the liqueur va­ri­ety – they’re for­bid­den too.

My looka­like ‘wine’ had a vis­ceral, pos­ses­sive, al­most sex­ual power

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