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“What do you say to explain your choice not to drink alcohol?”: A problem facing a growing number of young people

Going back to going to schools this week (after almost 10 days of absolutely no presenting – I didn’t know what hit me!) was made so much easier due to the wonderful young women I got to meet. I was at two girls’ schools in Melbourne and both were great. As always there were a wide variety of experiences in the room when it came to alcohol – at each of the sessions you could easily spot (as much as I say to the students that I don’t want to know what they’re doing and to use their best ‘poker faces’, they simply can’t help themselves and give themselves away very quickly) those groups of girls who were heavily into the party scene, with alcohol obviously being very important when they socialise, but at the same time you can also see those girls who simply have no interest in alcohol whatsoever (and of course, there are all those in-between who may occasionally dabble but don’t drink very much if they do).

But there was one girl yesterday who really brought a smile to my face when she approached me after the Year 12 presentation. She had heard me say (as I always do) that I don’t drink alcohol and never really have and she was very keen to find out what I said to people when I was asked if I would like to have a drink. The question went something like this …

I’m starting to go to a lot of 18th birthdays now and I’m increasingly being asked if I want a drink, not only by my friends but by people I don’t necessarily know and even the parents of my friends! It’s been really easy to simply say I don’t drink and leave it at that up to now – I’ve never really been questioned about my choices before this year – but it’s now getting really hard and very annoying! I have no desire to tell people, sometimes complete strangers, my life story – it’s not their business why I don’t drink but sometimes they just won’t let you go with a “No thank you” – they want to know more. You said you didn’t drink – how do you do it? What do you say to people to explain your choice not to drink alcohol?

I truly believe that a young person who chooses not to drink and then makes it very clear to their friendship group and everybody else that that is their decision is a pretty tough cookie! It is difficult to be a non-drinker in this country – as I always say, tell me somewhere in this country that you can socialise where alcohol is not front and centre. I find it incredibly annoying that most people assume that everyone drinks, and if you don’t there must be something wrong with you. If I feel like that, how must a 15-16 year old adolescent who is struggling with working out where they fit in the world feel?

So what did I say to her? I’m at an age where I can be totally honest and with what I do for a living most people accept my answer which is that I simply don’t like the taste. I don’t like the taste of alcohol when you drink it and I can’t abide the taste of it in foods, particularly cakes and desserts. Now that’s not necessarily going to be the best answer for a young person. You can pretty well guarantee that there will be a follow-up comment like “Well you haven’t tried this type of alcohol – it tastes really different” or “Alcohol is an acquired taste – give it some time and you’ll get used to it” … Honesty is usually the best policy but in this area, as I said to her, she really needed an answer that was going to stop people in their tracks.

Without doubt the best answer that I have come across in talking to young people, particularly those going to university (where there can be great pressure to drink), is “I’m allergic to alcohol!” Sounds ridiculous but I have met so many young people who use this and it works wonders. The only thing you have to ensure is that you have a feasible response if the person then asks you what happens if you drink … stumble there and your story will fall flat.

I can’t tell you how excited she was with my suggestion. It was almost like I’d told her that she’d won the lottery! She wanted to know if people really could be allergic to alcohol and I told her as far as I knew that was certainly the case (I had a friend years ago who would become terribly sick even being in a room where you could smell alcohol) and it was obvious that a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders. With that she literally skipped off with a couple of friends she had with her, with her last words to me being that she would contact me once she’d come up with her full story and let me know how she went with it. It was a really special moment!

It’s really sad that we don’t talk about those young people who choose not to drink. Last year an Australian study came out that I have spoken about many times that showed that we are seeing more school-based young people identifying themselves as ‘non-drinkers’ than in the past. Little research is conducted on why adolescents may make that choice, instead we tend to focus on those who get themselves into trouble with alcohol. That is why that a small UK study that examined the “lives and choices of young people (aged 16-25) who drink little or no alcohol” is so interesting. It’s a few years old now but it’s still a great little piece of research that gives an interesting insight into a group of young people that we rarely, if ever, talk about.

Some of the key points highlighted in the Summary document include the following:

  • choosing to drink little or no alcohol is a positive choice made for many reasons. For some young people the decision not to drink is central to their identity, for others it is ‘no big deal’, just one of many choices
  • major influences stem from observing people around them. Good parental role models play a part, as does witnessing the negative effects of alcohol on others
  • young people feel that alcohol education and alcohol messages are based on the assumption that young people will drink. They emphasise the importance of presenting not drinking as legitimate option to young people, parents and society more broadly

I’m certainly not about promoting abstinence when it comes to alcohol – but realistically we only ever talk about two options when it comes to drinking – ‘responsible drinking’ and ‘risky drinking’. There is a third option – ‘not drinking at all’. If our children choose not to drink alcohol they should be supported in that choice and the best way to do that is to make it very clear that choosing not to drink is absolutely okay and people who don’t do it do not have three heads – we are completely normal!

It would be great if we eventually have a society where when someone declines a drink of alcohol, there are no questions about why that choice is made. Unfortunately we’re not there yet! Making up a reason why that choice has been made (i.e., “I’m allergic!”) is not ideal, but if it helps a young person get through a time in their life when there is great pressure to conform, so be it …

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