Why people don’t drink: It’s none of your business


It’s holiday season, a time of year for celebration.

So here’s a friendly reminder that “holiday” and “celebration” need not be synonyms for “drinking.”

Canadians are big drinkers, consuming 50 per cent more alcohol than the global average. Our reputation as a nation of beer drinkers is well earned. The average Canadian adult knocks back 76 litres of beer, 16 litres of wine, five litres of spirits and four litres of other alcoholic beverages annually. But averages don’t tell the whole story.

There are about 22 million Canadians who consume alcohol. Roughly 3.1 million people drink to the point of risking immediate physical harm (often binge drinking), and another 4.4 million drink to excess so routinely that they suffer chronic health problems as a result. Drinking is not always good fun.

One in four Canadian adults is a teetotaler – seven million in total – and that number is growing. The holidays can be hellish for them, given the relentless social pressure to imbibe and the constant interrogations. There are many reasons people don’t drink. None of them are any of your business.

People’s relationship with alcohol is complicated. For non-drinkers, it is often even more complicated. The most common assumption is that teetotalers are former alcoholics. For the most part, they are not.

An estimated 600,000 are physically dependent on alcohol, what we commonly call alcoholism. It’s not clear how many people are former alcoholics, but given the poor rates of abstinence among those who were once addicted, it’s likely a small percentage of non-drinkers.

“Are you an alcoholic?” is not an appropriate question for someone you’ve just met. If people want to tell you about their 12-step success, they will. But don’t pry; it’s obnoxious and rude. When young women don’t drink, it’s often assumed they are pregnant or trying to conceive. Here’s some advice you can take to the bank: Don’t question a woman about her reproductive status, ever.

A common reason people don’t drink is their religious beliefs. Major religions like Islam and Sikhism eschew alcohol, as do some Christian denominations, such as Mormons and Baptists. Other religions preach moderation.

There are also a range of health reasons. Some people are allergic to alcohol. Allergy to sulfites (found in wine) can be life-threatening and exacerbate the symptoms of asthma and migraines. It is unwise, dangerous even, to consume alcohol if you are taking certain prescription medications, including heart drugs, pain medications, and cold and flu treatments.

Alcohol also contains a lot of empty calories, so it’s kryptonite for people trying to lose or maintain weight. A beer is about 150 calories, a glass of wine 120 calories and a shot (1.5 ounces of spirits) 100 calories, not counting any mix. Those numbers can add up quickly.

Some teetotalers simply don’t like the taste of alcohol, the same way some people don’t like the taste of broccoli. Others don’t like the cost, and alcohol is pricey.

Of course, you will have read that drinking is good for your health. While moderate drinking is associated with better health, moderate drinkers tend to have healthier lifestyles overall, so it’s difficult to tease out the role of that daily glass of wine. Also, if one thing is clear in the research, it is that there is no benefit in non-drinkers starting to drink.

Let’s not forget that most people who drink do so responsibly – that’s about 14.5 million Canadians. They are not the ones who end up in the ER after a fight or in jail after driving while impaired. If anything, they should see non-drinkers as allies.

Abstinence is not that different from moderation. Teetotalers and moderate drinkers alike are making a choice, a difficult choice in a society where alcohol is the prime social lubricant. Yet those who have opted for a no-hangover lifestyle are often viewed as social pariahs in some circles – as moralistic and anti-fun. For some reason, alcohol is the one drug you have to justify not taking.

One last thing: Just because someone is sober doesn’t mean they want to drive 30 minutes out of their way to take you home in your drunken state. Designated driver is a role that many non-drinkers take on willingly. But it should be a respected role, not the booby prize.

So this holiday season, when you raise a glass, make a little effort to welcome those who opt for a mocktail, a soft drink, or a sparkling water into the festive ritual.

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