By Megan Cook & Gabe Caluzzi
Across the world we are seeing many people who are consuming less alcohol. For the past 20 years, young people’s alcohol consumption has been decreasing in many countries and going alcohol-free seems to have become more acceptable (Vashishtha et al. 2020; Caluzzi, Pennay et al. 2021). The sober curious movement has also been growing. Sober curious movements allow people to ‘experiment’ with sobriety, encouraging people to reflect on their alcohol consumption and the role alcohol plays in their life – and to potentially make long-term changes (see Warrington 2018). Febfast, DryJuly and other temporary sobriety initiatives are similarly growing in popularity as ways to both raise money for charity, as well as to facilitate people taking a break from alcohol.
Sober curious movements allow people to ‘experiment’ with sobriety, encouraging people to reflect on the role alcohol plays in their life…”Megan Cook & Gabe Caluzzi
COVID-19’s impact on alcohol consumption
However, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, many people have had to deal with new stresses and anxieties associated with lockdowns and being stuck at home. Juggling work and caring responsibilities, for example, has been a particular struggle. For some people, lockdowns were a period of self-reflection where they questioned the role of alcohol in their lives and engaged with the sober curious movement. However, for others, alcohol became a way to cope with these increased pressures at a time where other alternatives were not an option (Cook et al. 2021).
In Australia, alcohol has also been seen as an ‘essential’ product under lockdowns, readily available through bottle shops and home delivery services. At the same time, the alcohol industry has become increasingly sophisticated with its advertising, particularly online and on social media. There is evidence that the alcohol industry has used lockdowns as a time to promote alcohol as a form of coping, capitalising on the stresses and challenges many have faced during this time (ADF 2021; FARE 2020). Alongside this trend, we are seeing the industry adapting – increasing the range and number of alcohol-free beverages available to cater to a growing market.
People in Australia don’t only consume alcohol in social contexts, which is highlighted by the increased focus on home alcohol consumption during lockdowns.”Megan Cook & Gabe Caluzzi
Another inevitability of the pandemic was more alcohol consumption in the home, simply by virtue of physical distancing restrictions in many countries around the world. Yet, the home was already the primary location of alcohol consumption for many in Australia. Research has shown that 63% of all alcohol is consumed in the drinker’s own home, and 56% of all alcohol consumption in the home is above the nationally recommended guidelines of two standard drinks per day in Australia (Callinan et al. 2018). People in Australia do not only consume in social contexts, and the increased focus on home alcohol consumption during lockdowns has highlighted this.
All of this raises several important questions:
- With the broader societal shifts as a result of the pandemic, do extended lockdowns and working from home present a threat to the ‘sober curious’ movement?
- And how will the end of lockdown change peoples’ alcohol consumption patterns?
‘Meet the Experts: Is Being Stuck at Home a Threat to the Sober Curious Movement?’
On November 16, La Trobe University’s Centre for Alcohol Policy Research (CAPR) hosted an online seminar discussing the Sober Curious Movement and alcohol consumption after lockdowns ease in Australia, with experts Dr Sarah Callinan (senior research fellow at CAPR), Dr Gabe Caluzzi (postdoctoral research officer at CAPR), and Jill Stark (award-winning journalist, best-selling author and passionate mental health advocate) moderated by Rob Moodie. The webinar was an opportunity for an in-depth conversation about the changing landscape of alcohol availability and consumption and the alternatives to drinking alcohol, in light of the lockdown.
The panel coincided with the easing of many lockdown restrictions in Victoria, Australia, a state that many have argued has been the “most locked down” in the world (RMIT ABC Fact Check, 2021). As a result, we were all interested in whether the alcohol use or non-alcohol consumption trends we saw in the pandemic would continue once we left lockdown.
How did alcohol use change during lockdown?
Sarah began the discussion by describing shifts in alcohol consumption that had occurred during the lockdowns in Australia. What seemed to change during the pandemic was how often and how heavily people were consuming alcohol.
While people seemed to drink alcohol more often during lockdowns, we saw that they were consuming less alcohol when they were drinking (i.e., less heavy episodic alcohol use) (Callinan, Mojica‐Perez et al. 2020, Callinan, Smit et al. 2020). There didn’t seem to be an increase in alcohol consumption overall, and the greatest reduction in alcohol use seemed to be in younger people, who usually consume more alcohol out of the home. For young people, alcohol use is still a very social practice, so when young people couldn’t socialise, they were less likely to consume alcohol. Given recent declines in young people’s alcohol use, this comes as another reminder that the idea of alcohol consumption being just a “youth issue” doesn’t hold up anymore.
What changed during the pandemic was how often and how heavily people are consuming alcohol.”Megan Cook & Gabe Caluzzi
There were some older age groups where alcohol use went up, particularly among those who were juggling lots of roles (e.g., working and caring). These are people who already drink alcohol at home and are most comfortable using alcohol at home. So, when alcohol was marketed towards these groups, it became an easy thing to reach for to manage various stresses. However, lockdowns were also an opportunity for many to reassess the role alcohol use plays in their lives and make attempts to reduce their consumption (Nicholls & Conroy, 2021).
What does this mean for the sober curious movement?
The sober curious movement seemed pertinent because lockdown was a period of self-reflection which gave people time to think about their own alcohol use. While some people may have used alcohol as a way to manage stress and the uncertainty of lockdown, it seemed many others saw lockdown as an opportunity to reduce their alcohol consumption and work towards a better relationship with alcohol. Jill discussed the increased interest in her own “No BoozeDay Tuesday” over the pandemic, particularly as people were in lockdown or emerging from lockdowns.
As sober curious movements take off and gain in visibility and popularity as we have seen over the past 10 or so years, it’s interesting to consider whether we are seeing greater acceptance of not consuming alcohol in Australian society or whether the alcohol drinking culture is too ubiquitous or deeply embedded. The emergence of influencers and celebrities talking about sobriety and their reasons for stopping or reducing their alcohol use adds to this conversation about alcohol.
…alcohol is the only drug that we have to justify not taking when we are in social situations, we have to – well we don’t actually have to which is what I often tell people, you actually don’t have to justify yourself – but that’s the culture which we inhabit and I think that that will shift and the reason it will shift is because of more conversations like this and when people have that peer-to-peer examples of people living full and meaningful fun lives”.Jill Stark, journalist, mental health advocate, author ‘High Sobriety’
There seems to be a stronger sober curious movement and more people documenting their “sober journeys” in ways that people can relate to. However, it might be one thing to stop consuming alcohol during lockdowns, but it may be more difficult when people begin to re-enter social situations where alcohol is still the norm. Navigating making alcohol-free choices beyond the four walls of home may be particularly difficult given the alcohol norm in most social contexts, such as alcohol-focused events like weddings and parties.
What about non-alcoholic beverages?
Although behind some countries in Europe, the availability and range of non-alcoholic drinks have been growing in Australia. For many, non-alcoholic beverages are a life raft in the sea of social situations drowning in alcohol. They can allow people who make alcohol-free choices to not feel like “the odd one out” in social situations, which in itself can support the choices to go alcohol-free. They also facilitate harm prevention and minimisation strategies (e.g., not driving under the influence of alcohol). Even among those who aren’t going completely sober, substituting usual alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic drinks may lead to people having more nights during the week where they don’t consume alcohol. While there doesn’t seem to be a strong appetite for non-alcoholic drinks among teenagers, they do provide an alternative for those who want to experiment with non-alcoholic drinks, or even partially reduce their alcohol use.
For many, non-alcoholic beverages are a life raft in the sea of social situations drowning in alcohol.”Megan Cook & Gabe Caluzzi
However, it’s not the silver bullet in terms of solutions and there are numerous concerns about non-alcoholic beverages. This was apparent in the panellist’s discussion of alcohol-free products in supermarket aisles next to soft drinks and juices, something which has been occurring in the UK for years. For some, this could be highly beneficial as having to go to off-premises outlets to purchase non-alcoholic beverages can be triggering for some people with alcohol dependency issues (drinking non-alcoholic drinks may be similarly triggering for those people). For others, it is problematic when alcoholic branding and promotion enters spaces usually devoid of alcohol, especially for children and adolescents for whom non-alcoholic beverages look deceptively similar to alcoholic beverages. As Jill queried:
is lockdown a threat to the sober curious movement, or is the sober curious movement a threat to the alcohol industry?”Jill Stark, journalist, mental health advocate, author ‘High Sobriety’
Her question highlights that there are likely to be new ways the industry advertises and supports the branding of non-alcohol beverages to meet changing demand. Despite this, there was one clear consensus – more non-alcoholic options, particularly in licensed premises, are needed.
What happens when we come out of lockdown?
In Australia during the lockdowns, political leaders propagated a message of consumption as the way to exit out of and celebrate the end of a traumatic and difficult period and the advent of new freedoms.
“Getting on the beers” became a cultural slogan, played in nightclubs, on national radio and remixed countless times. The slogan was used in sponsored advertising campaigns encouraging people to go to their local pubs as lockdowns ended. It was a slogan founded on the assumption that alcohol is applicable and relevant to the masses.
However, as Jill pointed out, for those who don’t use alcohol there is a degree of exclusion that comes with these messages – “do I not get to celebrate the end of lockdown because I’m not getting on the beers?” We need to be thinking more broadly about the impacts these messages have when they come from those in positions of authority.
Many people may have reassessed the role alcohol use plays in their lives during lockdowns or changed their alcohol consumption patterns. However, panellists cautioned that we should temper our expectations that this will lead to longstanding changes as lockdown restrictions ease. Gabe reminded us of how embedded alcohol consumption practices are in our routines; while shifts in routines and responsibilities during lockdowns may have changed the way many people drank alcohol (Caluzzi, Pennay et al. 2021), as people’s lives and routines begin to return to “normal”, alcohol consumption practices may also reflect this and return to what they were pre-pandemic.
Sarah also added that for young people, there was a sense that once licensed venues open and allow increased capacity numbers, young people’s consumption would likely return to pre-pandemic levels:
I imagine that once the licensed premises are back open people go back … and I do think … having all the license premises shut down in a city, that’s a massive change to the way that people consume alcohol, but I’m not convinced that people would then go less once they’re open and available again, notwithstanding the sort of easing back.”Dr Sarah Callinan, senior research fellow, CAPR
Jill noted that we need continued support for and accommodation of people’s decision not to consume alcohol as we come out of lockdown. She provided some of her own tips, including opening up about personal reasons for going alcohol-free, so others can understand and are less judgemental. Choosing to consume alcohol has been a way of showing and sharing vulnerability, so being able to do that without alcohol can be a useful tool. It is also important to avoid centring social events around alcohol and to be mindful of the personal struggles and changes people may have undergone during lockdown.
So where do we go next?
Overall, the event reiterated the immense value of having researchers alongside those with lived experience sharing their views and expertise together. The knowledge and experiences shared by Jill, Sarah and Gabe made this an important event.
In moving forward, the event also highlighted several ongoing streams of research in this space and ways forward.
For example, PhD student Chris Cheers’ work involves talking to alcohol users about how they view non-alcohol users and examines what drives the stigma that many non-alcohol users report experiencing. His work has shown how non-alcohol users are viewed as a “threat” to fun, connection and self in social situations (Cheers et al. 2021). This social stigma highlights the continued cultural embeddedness of alcohol in Australia.
- Understanding and challenging this stigma is proposed as one way of fostering a more supportive space for alcohol abstainers, but further research is needed to facilitate more opportunities for supporting people who make alcohol-free choices.
- More research is also needed on the inclusion of non-alcoholic beverages in supermarkets, particularly the implications and experiences for vulnerable population groups.
- Lockdowns have also highlighted the need to think about the alcohol use that happens within people’s own homes, rather than just at licensed premises (Callinan & MacLean, 2020).
- The value of the sober curious movement in engaging with and supporting people “experimenting” with sobriety, particularly during lockdowns and the COVID-19 pandemic, also seemed to be an important area to explore further.
Finally, the event ended (as we will too) with Gabe’s reflections on what we might expect coming out of lockdown, and the importance of continued compassion and understanding:
As we come out of lockdowns and we come out of the pandemic I do think a lot of people’s drinking practices will probably go back to where they were pre-pandemic. But I do think you’ll also get a segment of people who reassessed their relationship with alcohol and maybe are going to reduce their drinking or stop drinking completely. And I think you’re also going to get probably some people whose drinking practices change and maybe leave lockdown drinking more than what they were prior to the lockdown.
So, I think it is sort of important to accommodate the former and be aware of the latter, and just be aware…the pandemic has been complex, and it’s been really hard on a lot of people. So understanding that people have their own ways of dealing with things is going to be really important going into the future”.Dr Gabe Caluzzi, postdoctoral research officer, CAPR
About Our Guest Experts
Megan Cook is a PhD student at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, La Trobe University.
Operating from an interdisciplinary psychological and sociological approach to knowledge acquisition, her PhD aims to extend our understanding of what young children know about alcohol. Alongside her PhD, Megan is contributing to broader policy work of the centre and has an interest in news media analysis of representations of alcohol.
You can follow Megan on Twitter: @MeganP_Cook
Gabriel Caluzzi is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, La Trobe University.
His PhD was an exploration of the social conditions and cultural meanings of light and non-alcohol consumption practices in a sample of young Australians.
His research focuses largely on alcohol consumption practices, young people and the sociologies of youth and health.
You can follow Gabe on Twitter: @GabrielCaluzzi
Watch the event
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Callinan, S., Mojica‐Perez, Y., Wright, C. J., Livingston, M., Kuntsche, S., Laslett, A. M., Room, R., & Kuntsche, E. (2020). Purchasing, consumption, demographic and socioeconomic variables associated with shifts in alcohol consumption during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Drug and Alcohol Review, 40(2): 183-191.
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