There are good health reasons to think about reducing your drinking: alcohol increases your risk of injury, particularly on the road, contributes to violence, family breakdown and child abuse, and increases your risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, liver disease and cancer.
But for many of us here in Australia, drinking is something that’s engrained in our social practices. We drink with friends, we drink at sport, we drink to celebrate, and we drink to acknowledge or toast achievements. This can make not drinking challenging: you risk rejecting not just the drink, but all the social symbolism that goes along with it.
Nevertheless, there seems to be a significant number of people interested in reducing or stopping drinking, at least temporarily. In the 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, nearly half of drinkers reported taking some action to reduce their alcohol intake in the last year. Participation in events in which people pledge to give up alcohol for a limited period of time, such as FebFast, Dry July and Ocsober, are growing rapidly in popularity.
So how can we assist people who want to cut back on their drinking to manage the social challenges that go along with this? This is not something that health promotion campaigns around alcohol often address; instead, these tend to focus on increasing awareness of the negative health consequences and exhorting people to ‘drink responsibly’.
I want to explore this as part of my PhD research, and I think we can start by learning from the people who have already made an attempt to change their drinking: to better understand the social implications, as well as to identify strategies people can use to make social situations easier to manage without alcohol.
We already know a bit about the experiences of non-drinkers, particularly young adult non-drinkers, from previous research studies such as these. Not drinking seems to be seen as strange or deviant, with non-drinkers typically required to justify their decision and sometimes subjected to verbal or physical attempts to compel them to drink, even by spiking their drinks. Non-drinkers report that they are often perceived as rude, boring or judgemental of alcohol and other drinkers, unless they make an effort to dispel these perceptions.
As such, they employ a range of strategies to lessen their exposure to negative reactions in social settings. They might conceal or downplay the fact they don’t drink, for example by passing off a non-alcoholic beverage as an alcoholic one, or providing a situational excuse such as a need to drive or being on medication. They might make light of it, using humour and making it clear that they did not judge others for drinking, or they may choose to take on a role of value to the group such as designated driver. Some non-drinkers also try to limit their involvement in drinking situations, leaving parties early or encouraging friends to take part in activities less focused on alcohol.
For my study, I’m focusing on the experiences of people aged over 25 who stop or cut back their drinking, as this seems to be an under-researched area compared to the experiences of younger adults. While young people are seen as a particularly ‘at-risk’ group with high rates of binge drinking, the proportion of Australians exceeding the guidelines for life-time risk of harm from alcohol is actually quite similar across all age groups.
I’m still in the early stages of my research, currently conducting interviews with people who have stopped or substantially cut back their drinking in the last year, so I don’t have any results to share from my project yet.
However, compared with previous research, this study focuses on people who are likely to have been drinkers for a longer time, with more established social routines in which alcohol is embedded. In some ways this could make it tougher to stop drinking, as you risk impacting not just yourself but your drinking partners as well: your friends, your family, your workmates. At the same time, these people can also be a great source of support and if they know you well, may be less likely to make the sorts of assumptions that not drinking makes you boring or judgemental.
I aim to shed light on this with my research, so we can understand what can make it easier to negotiate new drinking patterns with your friends and family. This will hopefully support a more nuanced approach to health promotion efforts aimed at reducing alcohol consumption, so that they better address the social as well as health consequences of changing drinking behaviour.