You don’t have to be an alcoholic to want to give up the drink

Falling consumption of alcohol among young Europeans part of a long trend

Thirty years ago when we organised any event at which journalists might appear, the rule was to have a table groaning with free drink. But things have changed.

Thirty years ago when we organised any event at which journalists might appear, the rule was to have a table groaning with free drink. But things have changed.

 

What’s the link between the drinking habits of journalists 30 years ago and the falling consumption of alcohol among young Europeans?

The link is that both are, or were, signs that our love affair with alcohol is going through a long, if slow, cooling off period.

Once upon a time I worked in PR. When we organised any event at which journalists might appear, the rule was to have a table groaning with free drink. Whiskey, brandy, vodka, gin, stout, lager and wine were indispensable to the free flow of information.

When I became a business journalist in the 1980s I noticed things had changed. Ballygowan bottled water had arrived to a chorus of doubters who could not see the logic of asking Irish people to pay for what fell from the skies for free. But it quickly became the cool thing to drink, at least during the day.

The young bloods of the press began asking for Ballygowan and going back to work sober. Some of their elders opted for the free booze and returned to work well-oiled which, as it happens, didn’t stop them from writing very good copy. At the time, it was perfectly acceptable to turn up in the newsroom with several drinks on board.

That growing preference for water in a setting in which the booze was actually free was one I found intriguing at the time. Gradually, the whiskey, gin, vodka and so on were replaced by wine and water and now you might not even notice the absence of alcohol.

Fast-forward to today and evidence accumulates that attitudes are changing among the young. In Britain, more than a quarter of young people describe themselves as non-drinkers. Britain’s Muslim population, of course, has a prohibition against drinking alcohol, but an increase in non-drinking is found in the white population as well as other groups.

In Ireland, drinking among teenagers is actually lower than the European average which has been declining. The decline in drinking in Europe is fairly modest, but it is a decline nonetheless.

Some of this is connected, I suspect, with having other things to do. Walk down a busy city street in the evening and see the coffee shops full of people, mostly young. Thirty years ago they would have been in the pub because the chances of finding a coffee shop after six o’clock in the evening were poor to remote.

Dry January

The older generations of drinkers often gave it up for November each year. This had something to do with the Catholic belief in Purgatory. Your sacrifice could get your deceased relatives released from the fires of purgatory – where their sins were being burned away – or at least reduce their sentence by a few centuries.

Today, instead, we have the secular dry January and sober October. The latter appears to have originated in Australia but looks like it’s starting to catch on in this part of the world.

Why does any of this matter?

I think it matters because for people who want to cut down on their drinking, or to drop it altogether, it really helps to realise that they are not alone. Large numbers of perfectly normal people won’t have a drink tonight or tomorrow night or the night after but they will still have fun.

It used to be assumed by drinkers that if you asked for a non-alcoholic drink in a pub, you must be an alcoholic temporarily on the wagon. What else could explain such odd behaviour?

The attitude was so ridiculous that if you stood there with a glass of water in your hand and said you were an alcoholic people would be more willing to believe you than if you were nursing a glass of whiskey.

Today you don’t have to be an alcoholic to give up the drink – which means that our relationship with drink is changing and that those then-young journalists who preferred free water to free alcohol back in the 80s were part of a trend that is not over yet.

– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).

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