Statistics show that we’re drinking less alcohol on the whole, but as the gap between mindful drinking and alcohol addiction becomes wider, is there a chance that some people are falling through the cracks?
We’re drinking less alcohol on the whole, but the gap between mindful drinking and alcohol addiction is becoming wider.
Every Tuesday evening, Jill Stark, a mental health advocate and author of the book High Sobriety hosts an online Q&A session called ‘No Booze Day Tuesday’, via Instagram Live.
“I just put the question box up [on Instagram] and say, ‘Ask me anything about what it’s like to be sober; What are the challenges? What are the rewards?’… and then I’ll answer anything I can that’s within my realm of experience,” Stark explains.
“It’s just been extraordinary. Even though drinking trends have shifted in the past 10 years, there’s still a stigma. There’s still a misconception and a fear that you can’t possibly survive socially without alcohol.”
No Booze Day Tuesday and the community that has sprung up around it is a good example of how drinking culture has changed in the past decade. When Stark first gave up alcohol in 2011, support was not so easily accessible. Now, there’s an array of apps, groups, organisations and public figures who are championing different approaches to alcohol.
TESTING THE WATER
While many misconceptions still exist, the latest statistics show a definite cultural shift around drinking. Data from a 2020 Roy Morgan report on alcohol consumption show that the proportion of Australians who drink alcohol has declined. Likewise, statistics from StatsNZ show that there has been a positive downward trend in drinking culture, with fewer young people drinking and less hazardous drinking.
But, within these big picture trends there are some worrying caveats. Although young people are perceived as the cohort more likely to be ‘boozing on’, a November 2020 survey by not-for-profit Hello Sunday Morning (HSM) found that people aged 65 to 74 are drinking more than double the amount of average Australians. Within that age group, men are consuming more than 31.5 standard drinks in a seven-day period, placing them in what HSM calls a ‘Very High Risk’ drinking category.
There is a similar pattern emerging in NZ, with research outlined in the New Zealand Medical Journal showing that young people are reducing their alcohol consumption and New Zealanders aged 50-plus are the nation’s true ‘at-risk’ drinkers.
Stark believes that the generational difference is down to culture. “It’s much more socially acceptable for young people to choose not to drink, whereas people of my generation and older have grown up in that heavily booze-soaked society with habits that they’ve learned over a lifetime that are harder to change,” she explains.
So why are younger people not following in the boozy footsteps of older generations?
Roger Falconer-Flint, head of engagement at Hello Sunday Morning, says these trends are being driven by young people. “We believe it’s part and parcel of the wider trend of healthier living, which has seen increased gym membership, participation in triathlons and other events, vegetarianism, veganism, mindfulness, yoga... all heavily concentrated in younger groups.”
Lotta Dann, founder of NZ’s Living Sober, a free online community for anyone who wishes to address their relationship with alcohol, echoes this. “More and more people are realising that alcohol makes them feel stifled, diminished, unwell and disconnected,” she says.
Another factor has been the rise of the ‘sober-curious’ movement (also known as ‘mindful drinking’) – described as a way to introduce people to the idea of abstinence or moderation in a gentle and nonconfrontational way.
“The sober-curious movement is for those who have chosen to avoid alcohol for subjective reasons relating to health and wellness. It focuses on curiosity instead of sobriety, moving away from a punitive approach and encouraging a curious mindset as to the reasons you might desire alcohol,
“IT’S MORE SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE TO CHOOSE NOT TO DRINK.”
and the ways in which consuming it affects your life,” explains Julie Sweet, a clinical psychotherapist at Seaway Counselling.
The trend has taken off, with #sobercurious now appearing on over 182,000 Instagam posts. A 2019 poll from the UK found that 56 per cent of millennials consider themselves to be mindful drinkers.
But as the movement becomes more popular, Sweet worries that it could inadvertently exclude people with alcohol dependence who are not able to control their drinking. “This could cause societal division amongst such groups, and further stigmatisation. Insight into the stigma facing those who find alcohol challenging is grounding for movements to take into account.”
Conversely, Dann says the sober curious movement might help to move people towards healthier relationships with alcohol. “Identifying as ‘sober curious’ or trying mindful drinking will help reduce harm for all drinkers, and for those that need a more rigorous lifestyle change (i.e. total abstinence), these movements could work as a great first step.”
If you need more evidence to show that attitudes towards alcohol have shifted, look to the growing nonalcoholic drinks industry. A recent report from London-based IWSR Drinks Market Analysis found that the no- and low-alcohol category is forecasted to grow by 31 per cent globally by 2024.
Irene Falcone is the founder of Sans Drinks, an online bottle shop for all things alcohol free. Falcone, who has been a non-drinker for almost two years, started Sans Drinks after visiting a bottle shop to buy nonalcoholic beer. “The person behind the counter looked at me like I was crazy,” she laughs.
For many people, alcohol-free beer, wine and spirits play a big role in drinking more mindfully. “These drinks are a straight substitute for the alcoholic versions. It gives you the ability to go out and still party and hold a drink in your hand – something that looks, tastes and smells the same,” says Falcone.
A 2012 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that non-alcoholic beer can reduce inflammation and respiratory tract illness. Another, published in Circulation Research, found that while red wine and zero-alcohol red wine both contain the same amount of antioxidants, the alcohol content of the traditional wine may block the polyphenols from working effectively.
The non-alcoholic red wine led to a significant decrease in participants’ blood pressure, reduced their heart disease risk by 14 per cent and their stroke risk by 20 per cent. The alcoholic red wine did not have the same effects.
But although alcohol-free drinks are a boon for many, it’s important to note that they may be triggering for people with alcohol dependency.
“Everyone is different and everyone is coming at sobriety from a different place. I’m always mindful that there might be people watching that have alcohol dependency issues.
And we know that some people have found themselves relapsing as a result of having these drinks,” says Stark, who is also concerned by supermarkets stocking alcohol-free products alongside soft drinks. “In having these drinks that look and smell and taste like alcohol sitting next to the cola and lemonade on the shelf, is that going to normalise drinking for a younger generation? For people in general?” she asks.
While the statistics show that on the whole we’re drinking less, alcohol harm in New Zealand is significant. Alcohol Action New Zealand (AANZ) reports that NZ has 700,000 heavy drinkers and that over 20 deaths a week are directly related to alcohol. It reminds that alcohol is a Class B equivalent drug in NZ and is addictive, causes aggression and depression, is carcinogenic, fattening, and causes brain damage and birth defects.
In Australia, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) reports that nearly 6,000 lives are lost every year and more than 144,000 people are hospitalised because of alcohol-related harm, making it one of the nation’s greatest preventative health challenges.
Given so many people are struggling to drink in moderation it can be hard to see what a healthy relationship with alcohol actually looks like. Sweet says that this is because alcohol affects individuals in different ways. “So consequently, a healthy relationship with alcohol is different for every person depending on how that individual feels about their alcohol consumption.”
ALL OR NOTHING?
“Generally, it comes down to a healthy, subjective balance that is in their best interest. For some, that might look like not drinking at all. For others, it could mean drinking moderately. A few may only consume alcohol at special events,” Sweet says.
She adds that it’s important to distinguish between someone with an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and someone with substance dependency. “Someone with an unhealthy relationship with alcohol may not have a physical dependency on alcohol. The frequency at which they consume alcohol can be inconsistent; they may drink often, or they may drink occasionally.”
Difficulties can arise for this cohort when they do choose to drink, as alcohol has a negative impact upon them. It can also affect the lives of the people surrounding them, and they may even cause harm to themselves or others. “So, whilst drinking may not be a dependency, alcohol can certainly still cause problems for the lives of people with an unhealthy relationship with alcohol,” Sweet notes.
At Hello Sunday Morning, a healthy relationship with alcohol is defined as the ability to maintain your personal agency – in other words, mindful drinking. “That means you don’t drink out of unthinking habit, or in response to unwanted urges or pressure from others, and you don’t drink more than you originally intended to when you started out,” explains Roger Falconer-Flint.