Magpie Anthology

Cool to be Sober?

Not drinking alcohol seems to be in vogue. ‘Abstaining’, ‘refraining’, enduring ‘dry’ months and driver designations – formerly, it has been sounding rather dull. But a new wave of Soberistas and Soberistos are choosing not to get completely ‘wet’ half the time like their parents. Staying healthier, safer and more alert around alcohol appears to be on trend.

In one of the largest studies of young drinking habits to date, researchers at University College, London, surveyed 10,000 16-24-year-olds about their alcohol consumption last month [October 2018]. A third of the subjects declared themselves ‘non-drinkers’ and a fifth hadn’t even tried alcohol once! Half the people questioned said they hadn’t had a drink in the past week, compared to a third a decade earlier, and it seems that binge drinking, the internationally renowned British pastime, is also in decline.

Less surprisingly, parents of these new clean-living youngsters had drunk significantly more at the same age, and the elderly had been the largest dry group previously. This heralds a record shift in drinking culture and it’s time to catch up. Perhaps a good place to start would be to lighten up the terminology? Participants in the study who didn’t drink alcohol, for example, were described as ‘non-drinkers’, but they drink to stay alive like everyone else, don’t they? I wrestle with these negative or confusing connotations.

CHANGING THE TERMS

Thumbs down
Non-drinker: reject, it doesn’t make sense
Giving/given up: what are you giving up? Hangovers? Liver disease?
Sober as a judge: defunct, we all know many judges drink (a lot)
Abstainer/abstinent: too negative
Abstemious: even worse
Nephalist (from the Greek, Nephein, to be sober): going too far?

Bottoms up
Temperate, as in equable, balanced, agreeable: best of existing descriptors, but some bad associations (US prohibition – why teetotal is also rejected)
Soberistas: my favourite, borrowed from Soberistas.com (I’ve added Soberistos for gender balance)

We must all be aware by now that heavy, routine consumption of alcohol is a bad health choice. The ‘red wine is good for you’ missive has, sadly for some, been debunked, and the sophisticated continentals who refrain from turning a glass or two of wine at lunch into a bender are not as ‘safe’ as we may have thought.

However, a study published in The Lancet early this year, which concluded that no amount of alcohol consumption is safe (an unpleasant surprise to moderate drinkers) left some experts unconvinced. Many scientists maintain that there are health advantages to moderate drinking, including increased longevity among Alzheimer sufferers, for example, and a greater chance of living past 90. But the obstacle to clarity here is the nature of the research itself, much of which comes with caveats and requires a good deal of common sense to interpret.

Most of the research studies are observational, which means it’s hard to tell whether the alcohol is giving the longevity benefits or if the benefits come from other lifestyle factors common among moderate drinkers, like strong social networks and exercise. Significantly, most research focuses on moderate drinking and an awful lot of UK citizens don’t drink moderately, especially in middle age (even if that’s what they tell their doctors!). The 10,000-strong sample in the University College study represents a meaningful number – research routinely contains far fewer subjects.

For years, public health officials have told us how much alcohol is safe and the figures keep lowering. Currently (as of 2016), it’s no more than 14 units a week for both sexes in the UK, and the only positive I take from this is that it requires the same discipline from men and women. Personally, I have found it simpler to quit alcohol rather than constantly torturing myself with unit calculations and repeatedly exceeding the ‘safe’ limit.

It looks like the UK youth are establishing good drinking habits early on, which makes adhering to good guidelines far easier throughout life. When I was 16 to 24, binge drinking was par for the course and ‘temperates’ were viewed with suspicion, even contempt. This new drinking trend is good news ¬– for one thing because moderating or quitting alcohol in later life can be difficult.

Healthy drinking behaviour appears to be becoming cool among the UK’s youth, and binge drinking, far less the norm. This makes me happy and I look forward to future research that explores the attitudes and language concerning not drinking alcohol among all age groups (especially Generation X!).

Words: Jane Cooke

Pictures: Christine Taylor

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