Drink Tank

What is the problem with not drinking?

At a recent party a male friend asked me, “how can you have fun without drinking?” This is just one of the many, many times I have been questioned about not drinking alcohol. There have also been many occasions where friends have talked about how it would be fun to get me drunk. At times it feels like I am the only person who prefers sobriety.

Alcohol features so heavily in daily life. A significant number of sporting teams and events, both community and elite, involve alcohol in some way. Drinking is promoted as a way of congratulating and celebrating winners and runners up at my basketball association. Trophies are a thing of the past, women’s leagues get champagne flutes and the men’s receive beer mugs.

Sadly, abstaining is considered extreme. I want to challenge the assumption that non-drinking is odd and in turn highlight that there is a slowly growing group of Australians that have made the conscious decision to be a non-drinkers.

Proving that I am in fact not alone, since 2010 over 20,000 people have taken a break from alcohol by participating in Hello Sunday Morning. This is a great initiative which encourages people to take a short break from alcohol to create meaningful change in their lives, and by sharing their story, contribute to a better drinking culture. Some have continued to abstain whilst others have reduced their overall alcohol consumption.

Recent research indicates that I may in fact have been an early adopter, as in my early teens (early 00’s) I was in the minority of non-drinkers. Step ahead in time to 2010 and over 50% of young people aged 14-17 year olds were abstaining from alcohol. Maybe this is a sign of what’s to come and more young people (and people in general) will decide to drink less or not at all.

It’s not a bad thing that I remember what happened the night before; that I only struggle to get up the next morning because I am tired, not hung over, and I don’t regret the money I have dropped on drinks. I can spend it on other things and I feel physically and mentally better.

Why is it that my choice makes others feel uncomfortable? I do not judge them for drinking, it’s their choice. People have said to me that they wouldn’t trust someone who didn’t drink or wouldn’t ‘hit on’ someone who wasn’t drinking. I resent that I am perceived in this way and forced to justify my alcohol-free status.

There are very few socially acceptable reasons not to drink – you need to be pregnant, or the designated driver. It is a shame that in a multicultural society such as ours, that these are the only legitimate non-drinking identities. This is further demonstrated by the language used to describe people who don’t drink. These include: boring, wowser, nana, weirdo, mood killer and wet blanket. You need to be pretty strong to go against the grain and not drink.

As research from VicHealth demonstrated, alcohol is considered appropriate at the majority of gatherings including at work-related events, parties, local sporting events, the beach, funerals and baby showers. Of 26 events, only a child’s birthday party, a church/religious group and a study group were considered unacceptable to consume alcohol. Not only that, the majority of people felt that it was acceptable to be drunk at more than half of these events.

This provides an insight into the state of play in Australia’s alcohol culture. There are many influences that contribute to the social acceptability of alcohol. The drivers of alcohol consumption include availability and pricing – you can buy alcohol that is cheaper than a bottle of water per litre, alcohol outlets have proliferated in recent decades and alcohol can be purchased 24 hours a day. Alcohol advertising is almost everywhere and is effective in recruiting young people to drink. It is promoted by retailers (Myer now has a wine club), in “health” magazines and alcohol companies encourage people to “celebrate daily victories” – wins such as growing a beard, getting a fringe or moving the lawn. This begins to paint a picture as to why alcohol use is normalised in Australia.

There is some way to go, but I am positive we will get there (by there I mean non-drinkers no longer regarded as social pariahs) if we continue to question and challenge what is considered to be the “norm” with regard to drinking behaviour.

I hope there will be a point where non-drinking is not considered out of the ordinary. There will be a larger variety of non-alcoholic options, fun can be had without alcohol, and you will not feel compelled to explain your non-drinking status. Ideally, people will be commended for that choice rather than ridiculed.

We need to challenge how we view alcohol from an individual and societal level. If you wish to see a change in Australia’s drinking culture I challenge you to do something and reflect on the relationship that you have with alcohol.

Amy Hagger

Amy is 26, works in health promotion and is passionate about reducing alcohol related harm and changing the alcohol culture in Australia.

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