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Why is drinking our default?

Why I don’t drink

‘I don’t drink.’ I’ve probably said this thousands of times in my life to date.

‘At all?’ people invariably ask me.

‘I never have.’

Australian culture is completely intertwined with alcohol. A beer with mates watching the footy, a glass of wine with dinner, mimosas with brunch, a cocktail with friends on a night out, champagne to toast success, shots on those milestone birthdays as you grow up. Other countries have their own drinking traditions – from tailgating in the USA, to giving 12 year olds wine in Europe.

 

When I tell people that I don’t drink most assume it’s for some particular reason.

‘Did something happen while drunk?’

‘Are you allergic?’

‘Is it because of religious reasons?’

‘Are you doing a challenge like ‘dry July?’’

And my personal favourite (often accompanied with a meaningful look at my stomach): ‘Are you pregnant?’

 

The reason real I don’t drink is simple and boring. I simply never started. Initially, it’s because I was an elite trampolinist during the period most of my teenage friends started experimenting with alcohol. Triple somersaults and a hangover don’t mix that well (I’ve seen the result of that from one of my team mates… ewww). And elite sport and the crappy calories you get from booze aren’t a great combination either.

 

But after a couple of years abstaining, a few things made me reinforce the decision.

  • Irritating drunk people – For the most part drunk people are annoying. I figured I’d prefer to be boring than annoying.
  • The cost – Not only are drinks expensive, but you also have to spring for a taxi or Uber to get yourself home too.
  • The taste – Most alcoholic drinks are an acquired taste. Really, who likes beer on their first encounter? Having not acquired the taste, I’ve found I don’t actually like most drinks.
  • Control – I didn’t love the idea of being out of control. And after seeing some of the stupid behaviour that people deeply regretted after sobering up, I didn’t want to be in that position.
  • Health – I’m an athlete, and while I love chocolate, in general I’m pretty conscious about my nutrition. Alcohol definitely doesn’t make the recommended intake list. And if you’re looking to cut the Covid kilos, it might not make your list either.

 

Basically, I looked around and wondered why drinking was the default in Australia (and most of the world) when it was bad for your health, bad for your wallet, bad for your behaviour, and bad for your morning after. If you could enjoy yourself without drinking… why would you start?

15 years later, I’ve still never been drunk.

 

 

Non-drinking is a growing trend

And it seems like I’m not the only one. Plenty of other people, especially young people, are joining the trend. From 2016 to 2019, the number of non-drinkers in Australia increased from 1.5m to 1.9m. The majority of that change was in the youth segment.

Non-drinkers range from complete abstainers like me, to pregnant women, to those doing dry-July and other challenges, to those who observe lent, to those who just want to drink less. There’s even a group called ‘sober curious’ (I’m not sure why people need to be curious about what being sober feels like since I would hope everyone spends the majority of their day sober…)

 

And businesses are catching on too.

The 2021 report from the IWSR Drinks Market Analysis forecast the non-alcoholic drinks category to grow at 31% a year. That’s in contrast to the slow but steady decline we’ve seen in the overall alcohol consumption per person over the last decade (minus the uptick during lockdowns!)

Most of this market is non-alcoholic beer, wine and cider, but non-alcoholic spirits are catching up.

There are even alcohol free bars (look out for Brunswick Aces Bar in Melbourne), alcohol free stores (try Sans Drinks or Craft Zero), and a slew of new companies producing products in this space (that’s in addition to existing alcohol companies trying their hand at production too.) A few of these startups worth checking out are Yes You Can, Heaps Normal, Sobah, Lyre’s, and Gordon’s.

 

 

How did drinking become the default?

Several archaeologists have compellingly argued that beer actually came before bread. The desire to have a consistent supply of fermented drinks led humans to switch from a nomadic lifestyle to an agricultural one.

In pre-historic times, this made sense. Fermented fruit and drinks were packed with vital calories, plus were often safer to drink than water. Having a steady supply on hand was a good reason to domesticate grains. Plus, those archaeologists also posit that pre-historic humans got drunk and had huge orgies. That seems like a good way to break up all that hunting and gathering.

Later, beer was an accepted form of currency. The workers who built the pyramids got a daily ration of four to five litres. Beer for payment.

 

These days, we have plenty of calories, plenty of safe to drink water, and a form of currency that’s a little more liquid than litres of beer.

So why is drinking still the default?

 

A little research turned up a few answers…

…the endorphins. Alcohol triggers the release of endorphins (the contentment chemical) in our brain. So it makes us feel more relaxed and happy. Mind you, exercise does exactly the same thing!

…the routine. For many people, alcohol is closely tied to certain milestones of the day or year. Beer goes with a BBQ, a glass of wine goes with the end of a workday, and a red goes with a steak. It’s a series of habits, and the triggers for  those habits are everywhere.

…our culture. This is the big one. The drinking age is seen as an aspirational for teenagers. It’s socially expected that you’ll drink in almost all social situations. The way to pick up is to buy someone a drink. What you bring to someone’s house is a bottle of wine. What you gift to someone is fancier bottle. When something good happens, or when something bad happens, we drink to mark the moment. Our drinking culture is so seemingly permanent, that we find it hard to swallow when someone says ‘I’m not drinking’.

 

 

Why you might want to try defaulting to sober

I don’t mind if people drink. And there is no way I’m going to tell people not to. It’s a choice. If you told me not to eat chocolate, or red meat, or birthday cake just see how quickly I unfriend you.

What I will argue for, is flipping your thinking. From drinking being the default, to drinking being a choice.

Find a non-alcoholic drink you love instead. Better yet get back to the original drink – water.

When you do decide to drink, make sure you’ve thought about it in advance, you don’t just start sipping because someone put a beverage in your hand. Ask yourself do you really need to have a drink to unwind or to have a good time.

Every day, we execute on default habits. Being on time for work, eating vegetables with our meals, being polite to others, exercising regularly. Over and over again we make sure the default option is the healthy one. Is it not worth trying the same for alcohol?

 

 

Could society change?

It’s not easy to change your default behaviour, but if you can get past your own habits and the peer pressure of your immediate friends, it’s a feasible goal.

But it seems impossible to change society at large.

Consider however, that 50 years ago, smoking was the default. A huge proportion of society did it. (And even if you didn’t you were inhaling plenty of second hand smoke.) And yet, in the span of a couple of a few decades we went from it being the default, to it being the complete opposite.

In 1945, 72% of men and 26% of women smoked in Australia. By 1980 men dropped to 41% whilst women climbed slightly to 30%. Now? Just 14% of men and 12% of women light up regularly.

It’s the same thing with many other default behaviours that have changed over the years – wearing seatbelts, getting married before you turn 20, and not owning guns.

One of the big arguments for this push for Australians to stop smoking was that it harms other people. We often argue that drinking harms no one but ourselves. At a societal level, that’s not entirely true.

Each year, 70,000 Australians suffer from alcohol related assaults, and 3.5m individuals drank at levels that placed them at risk of an alcohol related disease or injury. Something to think about.

 

 

Drink up

Whether it’s for your health, to avoid a hangover, or for your hip-pocket, if you decide that drinking will no longer be your default, you’re not alone.

Thousands of Aussies are changing their minds about what they are putting in their mouths.

These days, when I tell someone I don’t drink, rather than an aggressive ‘why not?’, I usually get a pat on the back and a ‘good for you’.

 

It makes me wonder if the default might be changing. And if it is… well I’ll drink (something non-alcoholic) to that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

September 18, 2021