- People who choose to not drink alcohol are often shamed by those who choose to drink.
- Studies show that choosing to not drink is as normal as choosing to drink.
- Nondrinkers can learn how not to be affected by negative projections.
The phrase “on the wagon” arose from the 19th-century practice by the Temperance Movement’s driving water wagons, normally used to spray dirt roads to keep down the dust, through towns to encourage people to drink water rather than go to saloons and pubs to drink alcohol. People were encouraged to get onto the water wagon and take an oath to drink only water.
Over time, the phrase has come to imply that anyone getting “on the wagon” has done so because they have a problem with alcohol. In other words, today, people who choose not to drink are often presumed either to be alcoholics or critical of others who drink alcohol. A brief look at current data quickly disproves this assumption.
On average, scientific surveys find up to 40 percent of Americans over 18 do not drink. Men (63 percent) are more likely to drink alcohol than women (57 percent).1 Averaged over the past two years, Gallup polls found 63 percent of Americans age 18 and older drink alcohol, whereas 36 percent described themselves as “total abstainers.”2
Clearly, it is normal for most people to drink, while it is equally normal for well over a third of the population not to drink. Only approximately 15-20 percent of drinkers are harmfully dependent on alcohol, contributing to 140,000 deaths annually in the U.S.3
Harvard addiction medicine professor John Kelly heads the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital. Kelly found that roughly 22.3 million Americans—more than 9 percent of adults—live in recovery from some form of substance-use disorder.4 This means that the vast majority of people choosing not to drink alcohol do so “voluntarily” and not because dependence on alcohol has become a significant enough problem to pressure them into abstinence.
By a margin of over 2 to 1, people who do not drink alcohol do so for reasons other than recovery from addiction. Most abstainers are simply making a personal choice not to drink.
Given the free choice made by those who do not drink, often propelled by a desire to optimize wellness, the kinds of projections frequently made on abstainers by those who drink become more interesting. What is the purpose of projecting weakness or a history of problem drinking onto people who are merely striving for greater wellness? Why do drinkers often feel some degree of awkwardness when others turn their glass upside down and refuse an offer to partake? Why do drinkers create pressure on others to join them? Are they defending against presumed (i.e., projected) criticism?
A particularly crass reason for pressuring people to drink is economic. The alcohol industry and government tax collectors sometimes collude to encourage drinking. The Japanese National Tax Agency is currently conducting a contest, “Sake Viva,” for the best ideas to encourage young adults to drink more alcohol. After two years of alcohol prohibition in restaurants during the COVID pandemic, young Japanese are rebelling against their nation’s traditional drinking culture.
Alcohol tax accounted for 1.7 percent of Japan’s tax revenue in 2020, down from 3 percent in 2011 and 5 percent in 1980.1 (By contrast, alcohol taxes account for 0.2 percent of U.S. government revenue.) No one seems to have calculated health cost savings from Japan’s declining alcohol consumption in the government’s effort to get young adults to drink up.
Economic pressure to increase alcohol consumption, thereby increasing tax revenue, occurred in the Soviet Union in response to Mikhail Gorbachev’s drastic reduction in alcohol production (1985-6). Alcohol sales, which had provided 33 percent of the country’s GDP, fell by 80 percent. Gorbachev’s popularity took a major hit from which he never recovered, and the Soviet Union soon fell apart. In the two years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, alcohol production and consumption in Russia rose to dramatic heights, with significant health consequences.2
I include these examples of governmental efforts to increase tax revenue by encouraging drinking because the need for alcohol tax revenue operates in conjunction with the alcohol, bar, and restaurant industry’s efforts to increase profits by increasing sales. Commercial interests’ ubiquitous advertising reinforces many drinkers’ sense that drinking is normal, while abstinence is somehow less than normal, less fun, less glamorous, and a less desirable personality characteristic.
My youngest daughter began a rigorous exercise program after experiencing post-partum depression. As she strengthened physically and emotionally, she began challenging herself with Spartan obstacle course races in order to perform her best in these simulations of basic army training. She revamped her diet. As her nutrition improved, she noticed the negative impact of alcohol on her workouts and eliminated it from her diet.
Today she is healthier than ever, physically and emotionally. She is one of the roughly 40 percent of the population who choose not to drink to improve their overall wellness. Regarding her decision to stop drinking, what does she have to apologize for?
In treating many recovering from alcohol use disorder, I have heard endless stories of how old drinking friends have shamed and shunned them for no longer joining in “the fun.” I have even heard nondrinkers worry about upsetting friends if they did not accept a glass of their favorite wine offered at a dinner party. No one should be made to feel strange for striving to be as healthy as possible.
How can you resist the pressure to drink?
- Know the facts. It is as normal not to drink as it is to drink.
- Understand that pressure to drink says more about those doing the pressuring than those resisting the pressure.
- Don't be judgmental about the choice others make to drink. Most drink responsibly, even mindfully.
- Acknowledge drinking is enjoyable for many people despite having some health risks. We all take calculated risks in life.
- Remind yourself that we all have to deny ourselves one thing or another—alcohol or optimal wellness.
You do not have any reason to apologize for a personal lifestyle choice that fosters wellness.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock
1. What Percentage Of US Citizens Drink Alcohol? (2023), https://liquorlaboratory.com/what-percentage-of-us-citizens-drink-alcoh…
2. What Percentage of Americans Drink Alcohol? Gallup, https://news.gallup.com/poll/467507/percentage-americans-drink-alcohol.aspx
3. Deaths From Excessive Alcohol Use in the United States, https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/features/excessive-alcohol-deaths.html
4. Kelly, J. F., Bergman, B. G., Hoeppner, B. B., Vilsaint, C. L., & White, W. L. (2017). Prevalence and pathways of recovery from drug and alcohol problems in the United States population: Implications for practice, research, and policy. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 181(Supplement C).