It has been well documented that more and more young people are not drinking alcohol. In our study based on 9,699 adults aged 16 to 24 years, within the nationally representative Health Survey for England, we found the proportion of non-drinkers increased from 18% in 2005 to 29% in 2015. This was driven by a larger proportion of young people not taking up drinking alcohol at all, which has almost doubled over the same period (9% to 17%).
Because the underlying factors driving this change are unknown we sought to examine whether the increasing trend in non-drinking applied to specific social, demographic and health groups, and whether these trends reflected established norms around non-drinking, or whether they suggested a cultural shift.
An increase in non-drinking across groups
Non-drinking has traditionally been found to be higher among people with lower incomes, lower education, poorer mental and physical heath, and ethnic minorities. The social gradient in non-drinking remains unexplained, but may reflect that for many cultures drinking alcohol is the norm, being a regular feature in celebrations or social gatherings, and that those who are not drinking may not be like ‘the average’. Indeed previous research suggests that non-drinking students have been met with challenges, suggesting stigma surrounding non-drinking.
However, our study found that non-drinking was not increasing among these groups but rather across a wide spectrum including, among the white population, north and south regions, students, those in employment and across higher and lower social classes. No such increases in non-drinking were found among ethnic minorities.
When we assessed health factors, we found that over the same period non-drinking increased among non-smokers, those with good mental health, and across all BMI categories, (but not among those with poor mental health, and smokers). The increase in non-drinking found across broad groups suggests that this behavior is becoming more mainstream among young people, and the underlying drivers may be multi-factorial or cultural.
Why is non-drinking on the rise?
Recent cultural developments among young people that place abstinence at their core, including Club Soda-the mindful drinking movement and morning raves without the alcohol, support these claims. There has also been prolific health campaigns which promote periods of abstinence that have grown in popularity such as Sober for October and Dry January.
We found the number of 16-24 year olds engaging in periodic abstinence increased … There has also been a reduction in the numbers drinking above recommended limits and binge drinking.
The research evidence on alcohol is also growing; in recent years, we have learnt more about the link between alcohol and cancer, and the possibility that any benefit of moderate consumption is cancelled out when considering these harms or are non-existent.
Another factor is that younger people may be more health conscious. This would coincide with the decline in other risky behaviors such as reduced teenage pregnancies, drug use and smoking.
Along with an increase in non-drinking, we found the number of 16-24 year olds engaging in periodic abstinence increased from one in three not drinking in the past week in 2005, to one in two in 2015. There has also been a reduction in the numbers drinking above recommended limits and binge drinking; over one in four had binge drank in the past week in 2005 compared with fewer than one in five in 2015.
This would be consistent with Skog’s theory on drinking behavior ‘The Collectivity of Drinking Cultures’ which suggests that population drinking patterns appears to move in tandem with one another; and it is actually reducing mean consumption that is effective in reducing problematic drinking overall.
The increase in non-drinking should be welcomed from a public health standpoint, especially given the recent report by the World Health Organization which attributes more than 5% of all worldwide deaths to alcohol consumption. The trend for abstinence and benefits to public health could be capitalized on going forward. The recent campaigns such as Public Health England’s ‘adopt alcohol-free days’ specifically targeted at older consumers who tend to drink lighter but more frequently, but have not have not experienced a similar increase in non-drinking, is an example of this.