Hangover Cures in Consumer Health – Mainstreaming or Media Hype?

With global alcohol consumption rising, an increasing number of supplement companies are looking to cash in on the occasional over-indulgence. Euromonitor International investigates the dynamic market for hangover cures within consumer health.

Alcohol: friend and foe

Enjoyed in every corner of the globe, alcohol is one of the world’s oldest and mostly widely consumed processed foods. Despite its near ubiquity, the global appetite for beer, wine and spirits is still growing. According to Euromonitor International’s latest research, between 2006 and 2011, global per capita consumption of beer – the world’s most widely consumed form of alcohol – rose nearly 6%. By 2016, the average person is expected to consume almost 30 litres of beer annually, an increase of 9% over 2011. Looking across all alcohol types, the average person is expected to consumer nearly 3.5 litres of pure alcohol in 2016.

Global Alcoholic Drinks Consumption: Total Litres, 2002-2011

With per capita consumption figures that high, it might come as a small surprise that alcohol is also the world’s most widely abused substance, and over consumption negatively affects the health and wellbeing of millions of people every year. According to the World Health Organisation’s 2012 “Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health”, the harmful use of alcohol results in approximately 2.5 million deaths annually, making it the world’s third-leading cause of death and disability. While these figures ring alarm bells for public health administrators around the world, it is important to note that even slight over-indulgence can have a negative impact on one’s health and wellness. The dreaded hangover – that combination of headache and body pains, nausea, upset stomach and fatigue that accompanies too much acute alcohol consumption – is a universal complaint among millions of drinkers across the globe. Increasingly, countries across the industrialized and third world have been taking measures to prevent over-drinking, particularly binge drinking (heavy, episodic drinking with the intent to become intoxicated). In 2007, Germany passed a ban on so-called “Flat Rate Parties” or open bars, which offer unlimited drinks for one cover charge, after a teenager in a Berlin bar died after supposedly consuming 50 tequila shots in one evening. The United Kingdom followed suit in 2010, banning such common practices as open bars, free drinks for women, and organized drinking competitions in pubs. In 2011 in Russia, which ranked highest in risky drinking rates in the WHO study, then-President Dmitri Medvedev announced a plan to quadruple the tax on vodka over three years. Over consumption of alcohol remains one of the world’s leading health problems. Unsurprisingly, entrepreneurial supplement manufacturers have increasingly been trying to cash in on the phenomenon.

A “cure” in a bottle

Folk remedies have traditionally been a source for hangover “cures”. Whether eating pickled fish in Germany or spicy beef stomach soup in Mexico, every country seems to have its favourite cure for the unpleasant side effects of one drink too many. While the idea of a hangover cure is nothing new, it is still a relatively novel area of consumer health. While people have been taking analgesics such as aspirin and ibuprofen, antacids, and caffeine supplements to combat the individual side effects, combination products specifically targeted against and marketed for hangovers have remained relatively niche.

In 2001, Germany’s Bayer AG – whose Bayer aspirin had long been a standby for hangover sufferers – launched Alka-Seltzer Morning Relief in the United States. This was perhaps the first launch by a leading consumer health company marketed specifically for hangovers. The product, which came in Alka-Seltzer’s classic dissolvable tablets, combined a high dose of aspirin (500mg) and caffeine (65mg), was launched to target 25-35 year old men, a younger audience than Alka-Seltzer’s general demographic. While the brand received modest promotional support, including a short-run of television spots and product hand-outs at sporting events, Morning Relief was eventually rebranded as Wake Up Call in 2008 and discontinued in 2010. However, the company has had significantly more success with a similar positioning in Latin America. Sold as Alka-Seltzer Extreme in Colombia, the product features packaging more reminiscent of an energy drink and strong television and online advertising support. Bayer sells the same product as Alka-Seltzer Boost in Mexico, though with somewhat more subdued packaging and advertising.

Bayer’s foray into the category notwithstanding, hangover cures have traditionally been the territory of small, specialty dietary supplement producers. In most markets, hangover cures are generally marketed as dietary supplements. This distinction carries significance in markets like the United States, where dietary supplements are not subject to pre-market approval or claims verification. As the United States FDA does not recognize a hangover as a medical condition, formulators are free to make unsubstantiated “recovery” claims. Many of these supplements are marketed by fly-by-night supplement companies and generally fail to achieve any significant amount of sales or long-term operating viability. However, several recent launches have attracted significant media attention. One recent launch, Blowfish, garnered significant media coverage when it hit stores in December 2011, including mentions in the New York Times, BBC.com, and other mainstay new sources. Basically the same formulation as Alka-Seltzer Morning Relief (aspirin, caffeine and an antacid in dissolvable pill form), Blowfish was erroneously mentioned by many media outlets as the first FDA-approved hangover remedy. While the FDA did not actually approve the product (its ingredients were already approved), the media attention that claim garnered boosted the brand’s visibility greatly. A variety of other remedies, have used their unique formats (Diablo Recovery dissolvable strips) or formulations (Rave Juice with yerba mate and 5HTP) to gain traction in an increasingly crowded niche. There have even been launches focused around herbal/traditional platforms, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. The long-term viability of many of these brands is questionable, given the cyclicality of lifestyle branding and the financial issues inherent to their relatively small production scales. Additionally, in developed markets like the United States, these brands are increasingly facing pressure from tonics and bottled nutritive drinks like 5-hour Energy, which has gained an informal status as a hangover fighter, and large energy drink brands, such Rockstar and Monster, which have both launched morning-after formulations (Rockstar Recovery and Monster Rehab) in the last two years.

Himalaya Herbal Healthcare’s Ayurvedic Hangover Solution PartySmart

A real cure on the horizon?

Despite their advertising prowess, many of the products on the market today are little more than repackaged multivitamins, and most doctors agree there is no true “cure” for a hangover. However, a recent study published by researchers at the University of California – Los Angeles suggests there may be a breakthrough in the making. Dihydromyricetin (DHM), a flavonoid component of the Hovenia tree of Southeast Asia, was discovered to counteract acute alcohol intoxication and major withdrawal signs in mice. As such, the compound represents one of the most promising treatments for alcohol use disorders. However, no human research has been performed and DHM’s long-term, potential commercial viability remains uncertain.

While real treatment options may be a reality in the long-term, the market today remains cluttered with myriad small, efficaciously questionable dietary supplement brands. Euromonitor International will continue to monitor this constantly evolving niche, as well as the greater vitamin and dietary supplement market, in order to provide the most actionable business intelligence available.