Media’s Sober Curiosity in 2020
With the dawn of the new decade, sober curiosity in the media and wider society has reached new heights. Ranging from Dry January stories, or covering the sober curious movement to inspiring stories about people who went alcohol-free and/ or overcame their alcohol use problems, the topic of the alcohol-free way of life has been in focus. While this public discourse across much of the Western world is very positive, there are also reasons for scepticism and concern.
Dry January is a campaign which started in the United Kingdom. The campaign has now spread across the globe, covering North America and even France despite its entrenched alcohol norm and even opposition from French President Macron.
The trend for Dry January and the wider alcohol-free movement is driven increasingly by younger generations such as millennials and Gen Z. These generations are more health and wellness conscious and are going alcohol-free by understanding the harm the substance causes.
Positive long-term effects of alcohol-free periods, way of life
In the United Stated, 1 in 5 Americans are trying out Dry January while 66% millennials are attempting to reduce their alcohol use.
As the sober movement grows its becoming easier to choose alcohol freedom, with a growing number of alcohol-free spaces, events, pop-ups, beverages and online communities available for those who want to engage in this lifestyle choice.
Research supports that even quitting alcohol for one month – such as for Dry January – has significant benefits. One study that looked at more than 850 British participants in the UK found that most participants were still consuming less alcohol than they used to, before Dry January, at 6 months later – even people who hadn’t completed the full 31 days.
Dry January in France: A difficult case
The story of the Dry January campaign in France has been a difficult case. Despite being on the government’s agenda, the campaign was pulled out due to intense lobbying from the wine industry that led to opposition by President Macron.
Regardless of the opposition, around 20 associations, including the Société Française d’Alcoologie (SFA), Association Nationale de Prévention en Alcoologie et Addictologie (ANPAA), Fédération Française d’Addictologie (FFA) and La Ligue Nationale contre le Cancer (UICC) decided to go it alone and start the campaign.
France is a specifically difficult country for the Dry January campaign as it has a pervasive and deep rooted alcohol norm, especially linked to wine. This has exacerbated the alcohol problem within the country. Presently, alcohol kills more than 40,000 people per year in France, which represents 7% of the mortality in the country. Dry January efforts are specially needed for countries with a strong alcohol norm to bring about change in how people view alcohol and socializing and to break harmful norms.
The campaign in France is a challenge for people to go alcohol-free for the month and monitor how much they consume and understand the relationship they have with alcohol. For French Dry January participant Alex the month has been illuminating about his relationship with alcohol, with him realizing there is rarely a whole week where he usually goes without alcohol.
Alcohol is very present in our culture. There is also a certain social pressure, perhaps indirect, we don’t realize it,” says Lucie Meja, prevention officer at the National Association for Prevention in Alcohology from Nancy, as per, France Bleu.
Ms. Meja adds that without government support the campaign was running with limited resources. However, there has been positive feedback, which she hopes would secure state commitment next year.
Market trends on low to no-alcohol beverages
Major brands have picked up on the increasingly strong interest in the alcohol-free way of life and adapted to it fast. While they promote alcohol heavily for many celebrations throughout the year from St. Patrick’s Day to Cinco de Mayo, they have had to adapt to the growing and more vocal, outspoken and confident sober (curious) movement.
Big Alcohol giants like AB InBev, Heineken and Diageo have all jumped on the band waggon. Heineken introduced its 0.0 beer a year ago and backed it with a $50 million marketing budget in 2019. Diageo acquired non-alcoholic spirits company Seedlip, chose Dry January as the jump-off point to launch its first-ever brand campaign. AB InBev has declared its goal to make 20% of its beer sales from low to non-alcoholic beer by 2025, and launched a Budweiser 0.0. However, the majority of the profits of these companies are made from alcohol and primarily from people with alcohol problems. The new efforts are simply ways to keep the brand loyalty going on the long-run.
While more supply of non-alcohol beverages is positive development to increase the alcohol-free range of choice, being analytical about major multinationals employing the strategy of non-alcohol beer, wine and liquor is crucial, as most of their profits are still earned by selling health-harmful products.
There are startups focusing mainly on non-alcoholic beverages such as the Athletic Brewing company. For these brands, Dry January is the month to introduce their products and brands to customers.
The sober movement and its people
There has been a special focus in the media on positive stories of how sobriety changed lives, shared through blogs and (online) sober communities.
Australian, Shanna Whan’s journey to sobriety started after hitting rock-bottom and waking up in the emergency ward after passing out from alcohol. Now, she is 5 years sober and founder of Sober in the Country, a national advocacy network for regional professionals re-evaluating their relationship with alcohol. She notes how most people don’t realize they have an alcohol problem because they have an otherwise healthy lifestyle.
Australian author Jill Stark took a year off alcohol, chronicling her experience in a bestselling book, “High Sobriety”. For stark giving up alcohol is the single most helpful thing she can do for her mental health. She also says it was easier to be sober now than when she wrote her book nine years ago. The alcohol norm had weakened in society and wider range of choices were available – and acceptable – now for the alcohol-free way of life. Stark who is 43 years old, says the push for sobriety came from the younger generation.
There are a variety of reasons why youth are staying alcohol-free, reducing alcohol use or going sober.
For 24-year-old Lauren Colcombe the reason was mental health.
When you are sober, you are in control and you are aware of how you feel, but alcohol messes with your head. I didn’t [consume alcohol] for two years and I completely got over my mental health issues from doing that,” said Lauren as per Wales Online.
20-year-old Aaron John honestly shares how alcohol always tasted bad for him. He stays alcohol-free as he believes alcohol makes people lesser versions of themselves.
22-year old Jamie Davies describes how much better he feels since going alcohol-free and how he has become more fit, going for runs and participating in Ironman Wales twice and doing three ultra-marathons.
For Edwina Storie, what started as a 12 months of alcohol-free goal has become a milestone in a longer journey as she experienced first hand the benefits of being sober.
I’ve gained far more this year than I’ve lost by quitting alcohol,” says Edwina as per ABC.
Sharing how she changed to the alcohol-free way of life, she highlights several tips.
- Making a strong commitment and sharing it with others.
- Having an active social life.
- Finding support for the alcohol-free life.
Since becoming alcohol-free, Edwina says her idea of normalcy in alcohol use has shifted. She thinks frequently about how alcohol is a carcinogen and the lesser consumed is better for health.
Concerns about the trendy sober movement
While the sober curious movement is attractive to many, there are concerns that not enough attention is given to people with alcohol problems who face addiction.
As Dr Emily Nicholls says, the sober movement position sobriety not as a process of depriving ourselves of alcohol because we have some kind of condition or disease, but rather as a positive and desirable ‘lifestyle choice’ to be celebrated and shouted about. However, Amy Dressner points out for some people, the choice was about life and death.
… for many of us, sobriety wasn’t a health trend, lifestyle choice or a socio-political statement but a matter of life and death,” said Amy Dresner in a tweet, as per, Alcohol Policy UK.
There are also the risks of stressing the individual responsibility too much rather than addressing wider determinants through policy and population-wide solutions.
What the alcohol industry has done very well is promote this idea that alcohol is about reward,” says Professor Dan Lubman, from Monash University’s Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, as per The Sydney Morning Herald.
Associations and norms such as these are specifically harmful and affect people who may not have financial or geographical access to other ways of coping with stress.
While the sober movement is becoming more trendy, vocal, and reaching ever more communities, alcohol use has been growing among women – and so has alcohol-related harm in women. While youth go alcohol-free, women in their 50s and 60s are consuming more alcohol, which is concerning due to specific harms from alcohol for women, such as breast cancer.
A new study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which analysed death certificate data on alcohol-related deaths from 1999 to 2017, found:
- Alcohol related deaths increased by 51% from 1999 to 2017 (from nearly 36,000 to nearly 73,000 deaths).
- Among women alcohol-related deaths increased by a staggering 85% from 1999 to 2017 (from 7,662 women to 18,072).
One reason is that women are consuming more alcohol currently than ever before says Dr. Aaron White, a senior scientific adviser to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Even with teenagers who show a decreasing trend in alcohol use the gap between boys’ alcohol use and girls’ alcohol use has been narrowing.
Some women have gotten the message that it’s liberating to [consume alcohol] like a man,” said Dr. White, Senior Scientific Adviser to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as per, The New York Times.
The increase in women’s consumption of alcohol is a part of the targeted effort by Big Alcohol to increase their consumers and profits. This has been confirmed through research. For example, one study in Australia specifically found alcohol industry strategies targeting women. Another study showed that alcohol advertising increases alcohol consumption and also found specific targeting of women.
Big Alcohol aggressively targets women not just through advertising but also normalizing alcohol use among women, using alcohol as a gender equalizer and by seizing the feminist movement.
This is therefore a crucial dimension in the discussion of Big Alcohol’s efforts to offer more no-alcohol and low-alcohol products.
Medical Doctor Peter Grinspoon shares his story about recovery, discussing the stigma and discrimination attached to addiction in the United States. While 12.7% of adult Americans suffer from an alcohol use disorder, the stigma surrounding it has not disappeared. He stresses the important contribution people in recovery can provide for society through their experience, which can only be harnessed by removing the stigma around substance use problems.
I wanted to demonstrate that anyone can get addicted, even (or especially) your well-meaning doctor, and that, provided they have some ability to grow and change, they are afforded the treatment they deserve, and — most importantly —no one gives up on them, everyone has a chance at recovery,” said Dr. Grinspoon, as per Harvard Health Blog.
The growing public conversation about stories of recovery, of choosing the alcohol-free way of life and staying sober and becoming sober and all the different reasons for these choices show how the alcohol norm is slowly changing.
The increase in alcohol-free choices and more people realizing the real effects of alcohol and choosing to engage in the alcohol-free way of life is a positive global shift – at least across much of the Western world. While this shift in individual choice is celebrated, efforts must continue at population level through policies such as the WHO-recommended alcohol policy best buys and the SAFER package, to address alcohol harm, to create healthy and enabling environments for all, to stop the stigma surrounding alcohol problems and to provide support and conducive environments for all people affected by alcohol harm to overcome these problems.
For further reading:
Alcohol Policy UK: “‘Positive sobriety’, Dry January & the rise of alcohol-free in 2020″
Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS): “Dry January in France: Taking up the challenge“
The Sydney Morning Herald: “For the ‘sober curious’, a booze ban is the next step in wellness“
Harvard Health Blog: “Going public with sobriety“