Maclean’s: What’s it like to be a non-drinker at a Canadian university?

by Stacy Lee Kong

Downey (centre) is part of a growing trend of students socializing without alcohol (Photograph by Andrew Tolson)

St. Francis Xavier University student Hillary Downey has never had a drink. Not with high school friends, not as a special treat to ring in the new year, not even when she got to university.
“I have never consumed alcohol in my life,” the 23-year-old says. “Partially, that’s because of my religion—I am Christian. There are lots of Christians who do drink, but it is something that I decided wouldn’t be a part of my own practice. [Even if I wasn’t religious,] I probably still wouldn’t drink, though. I don’t like the idea of something dulling my senses to the point where I might not be in control of my decision-making abilities. And I would much rather put the money I might spend on alcohol toward nachos!”
Downey’s not alone. Ask just about any expert, and you’ll be told that today’s youth are drinking less. According to Monitoring the Future, a University of Michigan research project that has conducted annual surveys of 50,000 American students every year since 1975, the number of Grade 12 students who engaged in binge drinking at least once in the previous two weeks “significantly declined” last year to 14 per cent. And the numbers for Grade 12 students who have tried alcohol in the preceding 30 days (30 per cent) and those who have been drunk in the preceding 30 days (18 per cent) are at their lowest levels ever.
In 2017, investment banking firm Berenberg surveyed 6,000 16- to 22-year-olds to determine their approach to drinking and found that young people are drinking 20 per cent less per capita than previous generations did. A 2018 World Health Organization report found teen drinking was declining across Europe, too; the United Kingdom saw the sharpest drop. Here in Canada, the number of youth aged 12 to 17 who have consumed alcohol in the previous 12 months is down from 27 per cent in 2015 to 25.6 per cent in 2018, according to Statistics Canada. And the McCreary Centre Society, which surveyed 38,000 British Columbia students in Grades 7 to 12 last year, reports that 61 per cent of teens who drank the Saturday before taking the survey engaged in binge drinking; the figure was 76 per cent in 2013.
There’s just one thing: it seems no one told Canadian students. There’s still a robust drinking culture on many campuses—last year, St. FX students told Maclean’s they had consumed an average of 8.5 drinks per week, and this year that number is up to 9.9. In fact, all the averages for the top-ranking schools for drinks-per-week are up this year. “It’s rare for me to find someone else who doesn’t drink,” Downey says. “I can really only think of one other student I’ve met at X who doesn’t drink, though I obviously haven’t had this conversation with everyone I’ve come into contact with.”

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The opinions expressed in this post are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the FASD Prevention Conversation Project or its members.

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