The most used drug in Australia.
The most socially acceptable drug.
The only drug we tend to question people for quitting.
We use it to celebrate, to grieve, to socialise, to unwind, to date, to have fun. From mimosas at bottomless brunch, cocktails on holidays, gin and yoga classes, boozy book clubs to wine on playdates, alcohol is entwined in just about everything we do.
Every milestone in our life is commemorated with a drink in hand. We ‘cheers’ at baby showers. We see alcohol as a rite of passage to adolescence on our 18th birthday. We even mourn the loss of loved ones with a beverage at their funeral.
But, it seems attitudes towards alcohol may finally be shifting and it’s becoming even more pronounced since the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Jean Hailes National Women’s Health Survey, an annual report aiming to understand health information needs and behaviours of women in Australia, 25.8 per cent of women under the age of 24 have been drinking less since the pandemic. Within this age demographic, a further 33.8 per cent of women do not drink alcohol at all.
National Drug Research Institute associate professor Dr Michael Livingston believes COVID-19 has potentially magnified ongoing alcohol consumption patterns. “We’ve seen for 15 years now, younger people’s drinking in Australia declining pretty steadily. We’re seeing pretty good progress in terms of reducing heavy drinking,” he says.
Women under 24 are drinking less
Your 20s are typically seen as the years to ‘live up’ your youth. It’s the time to party, binge drink and make the most of booze while the hangovers are still tolerable.
However, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019, the proportion of young adults abstaining from alcohol has more than doubled over the longer term. Between 2001 and 2019, the proportion abstaining rose from 9.7 per cent to 21 per cent for 18 to 24-year-olds. In 2019, the most common reason for abstaining from alcohol was for health reasons, including weight loss and hangovers.
At the same time, a growing number of ‘sober curious’ people all over the world are starting to question the role alcohol plays in their life. The term sober curious was dubbed by Sober Curious author Ruby Warrington and is used to describe people who choose to avoid or reduce alcohol consumption for personal, health or wellness reasons. It involves curiosity by recognising and second-guessing the often unhealthy habits fuelling your desire to drink.
Dusty Sunday mornings and beer guts aren’t the only health concerns when it comes to drinking alcohol. According to Cancer Council WA’s Alcohol Program manager Julia Stafford, alcohol can cause cancer. “Alcohol is a group one carcinogen, and any amount of alcohol use can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer. Strong evidence shows that it causes cancer in at least seven sites of the body including breast, liver and bowel,” she says.
“Alcohol causes around 3 per cent of all cancers, which is equivalent to 3,500 cancer cases in Australia each year.
“There’s really no safe level of alcohol use when it comes to cancer. The more you drink, the more frequently you drink, the greater your risk of developing alcohol-caused cancer.”
With health being a leading factor for sobriety and reduced alcohol consumption, alcohol companies have begun fighting back with ‘better for you’ alternatives. Stafford believes alcohol products are being developed to appeal to a health-conscious market, particularly for women. They are being marketed with a “health halo”.
“Often these are full-strength alcohol products, but the marketing is creating an illusion of healthiness by focusing on things like the natural ingredients, sugar and carb content,” she says.
“They are trying to make drinks seem healthier than they are. When really, they still carry all the risks of other alcohol products because they’re full strength.”
This isn’t the only way alcohol companies are targeting younger women. According to Feminist Media Studies, there is an increasing presence of ‘femvertising’ in advertising. Stafford says alcohol companies are using this marketing technique to present alcohol and drinking occasions as glamorous, fashionable, social and empowering. “You see it on social media with fashion influencers and beautiful imagery. Often there will be lots of pinks, pretty settings, drinking occasions with your friends and only showing the unachievably positive imagery of alcohol. Never the reality of it,” she says.
While alcohol companies continue using the ‘Instagrammability’ of pink drinks and cocktails, young women are still choosing to drink less. Could it be sobriety is #trending?
Social media is also being used to promote sobriety by an online community of women, including Sober Girl Society author and founder Millie Gooch in the UK. “I was 26 when I stopped drinking, due to the effect that alcohol was having on my mental health,” she says.
“Drinking exacerbated both my anxiety and depression. Scary blackouts were becoming a regular occurrence.”
In 2018, Gooch launched the Sober Girl Society community online, as well as in the UK, and has since published The Sober Girl Society Handbook. “I started Sober Girl Society in September 2018, because there wasn’t anything like it at the time,” she says.
“I was seeking a community for young women who wanted to discuss things like sober dating, the best non-alcoholic wine and who wanted to do fun stuff like brunch and dancing without alcohol. I couldn’t find something, so I created it.”
In Australia, women such as The Mindful Mocktail founder Natalie Battaglia are using online platforms to promote sobriety and non-alcoholic mocktail recipes. Battaglia says the intention of her account is to create an inclusive space to show women that alcohol-free drinks can be sophisticated and fun too. “There’s no way I would’ve started a side venture like this if I was still drinking. I didn’t have the time. I was always either focusing on when my next drink would be or recovering from the night before,” she says.
“Being sober has given me the motivation and passion to try new things. I had never even picked up a camera before. I didn’t know I was creative until I stopped drinking. Life is so much more colourful now.”
The development of Australia’s sober-curious movement, as well as the non-alcoholic beverage market, has been further established this year with the opening of Brunswick Aces – Australia’s first non-alcoholic cocktail bar in Melbourne. Brunswick Aces brand director Stuart Henshall says he has noticed a shift in the consumption of non-alcoholic beverages in the past 12 to 18 months. “When we first started selling our non-alcoholic gin blend in 2017, it was a struggle to get people to understand what we’d created and to get bars and restaurants onboard,” he says.
“In the past 18 months, we’ve seen an absolute explosion in terms of the amount of non-alcoholic product that is on offer in Australia alone. The market has just taken off.”
The first non-alcoholic bottle shop in Western Australia also opened earlier this year. Free Spirit Drink Co co-founder Sarah Rusbatch says while sobriety is growing in Perth, we’re still far behind, especially in terms of alcohol-free drink options. “Any bars or restaurants you go to in Perth, you really struggle to find something alcohol-free,” she says.
“I’m very much pushing for that change though.”
Rusbatch stocks more than 120 products, including alcohol-free cider, wine, champagne, beer and spirits. “It’s so important for people to have more choice when it comes to their drinks. You should be able to enjoy something other than water or a high-sugar soft drink,” she says.
Rusbatch also founded Perth Sober Socials, a community group for sober women, in late 2020. “As it stands in our community, most of the help and support that’s available for people with alcohol use disorder is for those at the very end of the scale, such as Alcoholics Anonymous,” she says.
“I set up Perth Sober Socials because I knew how important connection is in early days of sobriety. I wanted to create a space where women could come and meet other like-minded women.”
While it is clear women under 24 have been drinking less alcohol since the pandemic, the results do not say the same for older women. According to the Jean Hailes National Women’s Health Survey, 24.4 per cent of women aged 25-44 have actually been drinking more alcohol since COVID. As well as this, a recent Perth Sober Socials poll found the average age range of members to be 25-44.
Dr Michael Livingston understands there have been longer-term trends of the baby boomer generation, especially among women, suggesting alcohol consumption is increasing. “If anything, COVID-19 is just reflecting back these trends but potentially amplifying them,” he says.
Women over 25 are drinking more
The pandemic has ensued its very own set of challenges with lockdowns, closure of bars and venues, social distancing and home-schooling. It has drastically shifted the way we operate as a society, and according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, has had many implications on our mental health and psychological well-being. More cause for stress? More reason to pour that extra glass of wine.
Livingston says women have been put under new pressures since the pandemic, including working from home and home-schooling. “It’s not super well established yet, but there’s certainly some suggestion that people are using alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with these extra pressures,” he says.
From loneliness and financial strain to increased caring responsibilities and home-schooling, there is reason to believe women are feeling the effects of the pandemic in different and more pronounced ways to men, potentially triggering alcohol misuse. Rusbatch also believes women are turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism.
“How often do you hear people say, ‘I’ve had a shit day; I need to have a glass of wine.’
‘I’m stressed; I need to have a glass of wine.’
‘I’m pissed off; I need to have a glass of wine,’” she says.
“When you’re drinking all the time, you’re really disconnected from yourself. You don’t experience feelings because as soon as you have a negative feeling, you just drink to numb from it.”
Livingston says while alcohol can be an effective reliever of short-term stress, the issues lie in the long term. “Reliance on alcohol as a means of coping with things can be very problematic,” he says.
“Try to keep your drinking within the National Health and Medical Research guidelines. They recommend Australians shouldn’t drink any more than two drinks per day, on average.”
Rubatch says during early motherhood she found herself stuck in the ‘mummy wine culture’ trap, where she used alcohol as self-care. “I was at home with my two very young kids and my husband was out at work all day. I’d gone from having this high-flying, successful career and being very independent, to having my life turned upside down,” she says.
“I wasn’t intellectually challenged. I was bored. I fell for the whole ‘it’s 5 o’clock, I deserve a wine.’ We all started telling each other that and before you know it, every play date you go to has got wine.
“When you’re just stuck in that monotony of being at home all day and before you know it, it’s 5pm and you just want to do something to break up that routine, so you reach for a wine. But then it just gets earlier and earlier.
“Now I know alcohol is anything but self-care.”
Julia Stafford from the Cancer Council says it’s been very disappointing to see the pandemic being used as a marketing opportunity by alcohol companies. “One way that we’ve seen that is by alcohol brands flooding social media with alcohol advertising. They knew people were going to be spending more time on their phones and devices,” she says.
“We’ve seen a whole range of problematic messaging on social media, such as promoting easy access to alcohol while in lockdown with home delivery services.
“Some ads were encouraging people to use alcohol to cope, survive and feel better during this difficult time. There’s also been a lot of substantial discounts advertised for buying alcohol in large quantities, encouraging people to stock up.
“That messaging was really fuelling those misunderstandings that alcohol can help during those stressful times.”
Rusbatch runs Perth Sober Socials events to teach women alternative ways to deal with stress and to spend their time. A recent Perth Sober Socials event explored an introduction to aromatherapy. “We do meetups once a month. Usually with things like yoga, hiking, dinners or stand-up paddleboarding,” she says.
“What I think happens when you go sober is you have to start feeling your emotions and that can be hard because you’ve not really done it before. You no longer have alcohol as a buffer to distract you from those negative emotions.
You finally start understanding what makes you sad, happy. You start seeking out, naturally, the things that light you up. I feel like I know myself, now that I’m sober.”
After seeing the profound impact sobriety has had on her life, Gooch also encourages others to experiment with sober curiosity. “So many of us drink without even understanding why we do it or the real toll it’s having on our mental and physical health,” she says.
“I don’t have a mission to make everyone in the world sober, just to make a lot of people realise that it isn’t as boring or terrifying as we’re led to believe.”
If you’re looking to re-evaluate your relationship with alcohol, Rusbatch recommends putting down the bottle and taking a prolonged break from booze. “Most people will usually only ever take a prolonged break from alcohol because of illness or pregnancy. People are scared about what an alcohol-free life might look like,” she says.
“If you start drinking alcohol at 15, let’s say you drink until you’re 75. That’s 60 years of only ever doing it one way. Of never actually knowing who you are without alcohol.
“What’s it worth to just see it as an experiment? Give yourself six months of not drinking, just to see what’s different. See how you show up every day, see how you feel, see how it impacts your mental health.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol, there is help:
- Alcohol Drug and Support Line (08) 9442 5000
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Australia 1300 222 222