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Are we seeing a teetotal takeover?

If you think of students, there is pretty much one stereotype that will always come to mind, and that is drinking. Students like to enjoy copious amounts of alcohol. But it seems that this once ingrained idea may no longer be the case. New research indicates that an increasing number of young people are remaining teetotal. Why are students starting to shun alcohol and what could that mean for Warwick University?

A recent report by the National Union of Students (NUS) tracking alcohol consumption and attitudes towards drinking found that one in five students now say that they are teetotal. A number of universities have started to offer alcohol-free accommodation, including Chester, Bristol and the University of West England, and more than 400 students applied for the 132 alcohol-free rooms available at St Andrews. Similarly, research published in the BMC Public Health journal has revealed that the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds who do not drink alcohol has increased from 18% in 2005 to 29% in 2015, and the number of lifetime abstainers increased from 9% to 17% over the same period. Non-drinking was found across a broad range of social and cultural groups, suggesting that it was becoming more mainstream.

A recent paper in The Lancet reported that every glass of wine or pint of beer over the daily recommended limit will cut half an hour from the expected lifespan of a 40-year-old

The NUS report suggests a number of reasons that help explain why students are choosing abstinence. It has long been known that alcohol is not particularly good for your health. A recent paper in The Lancet reported that every glass of wine or pint of beer over the daily recommended limit will cut half an hour from the expected lifespan of a 40-year-old. Hence, excessive drinking enhances greater risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm, heart failure, cancer and early death. Many students – more conscious than ever of the health downsides – are choosing not to partake. A study published by the Higher Education Policy Institute in June also found that 44% of students were aware that “excessive alcohol” use is a “very serious” threat to students.

A wider diversity of faiths at university is also a factor, as is a rise in technology; if they are able to watch Netflix (for example), they do not need to turn to alcohol for entertainment purposes. There’s a case to be made that students, who suffer disproportionately with mental health issues (roughly a third of all young people have experienced an issue within the past 12 months), are more open nowadays to talking and seeking support and so are less likely to use substances as an emotional crutch. There’s also the question of finance to consider – students’ money is being stretched, and spending on alcohol is simply less of a priority.

Almost 8 out of 10 students believe that getting drunk is part of university culture, and 50% drink alcohol at least once a week

Almost 8 out of 10 students believe that getting drunk is part of university culture, and 50% drink alcohol at least once a week, according to the same NUS report. Interestingly, despite this trend towards sobriety, the data also indicated that 70% of students drink to fit in with their peers, and 42% had attended seminars, lectures or classes hungover. Only one in 10 said that they were aware of responsible drinking activities or campaigns on campus.

So, now that we’ve got some of the stats out of the way, what implications could an increase in sobriety have at Warwick? If you look at the Students’ Union’s (SU’s) events on their website, only one of the six highlighted regular events is not a nightclub event with an explicit link to alcohol (Coffee House Sessions, which take place in Curiositea). The website also promotes a number of evening events which are “designed to provide a more relaxed atmosphere for socialising if clubbing isn’t your thing” – these events mostly take place in the Dirty Duck, with examples including the Cleverducks Pub Quiz and Quackstar Karaoke (and anecdotally, alcohol and karaoke go together like fish and chips).

Pop! and Skool Days are part of Warwick culture in a way that the sober events simply aren’t

Very unscientific research in freshers’ groups on Facebook and the SU social media shows that it is the drinking events which receive the widest coverage – who hasn’t seen a flurry of posts begging for that week’s Pop! tickets? Pop! and Skool Days are part of Warwick culture in a way that the sober events simply aren’t (and that’s just on campus – forays to the Colly, Smack or Neon are held in similar regard).  The Tab’s celebration of the ‘Clubbers of the Week’ epitomises this very point.

If you don’t drink, societies and sports clubs can seem the place to go in order to find non-drinking socials. I spoke to a number of social secretaries to get their thoughts on the place of alcohol in socials and the challenges they face when planning social activities.

Lucy Nixon (A Cappella Society) told me that she finds sober socials easier to run “as our members have a lot of fun without needing alcohol, and it’s easier to control”. However, there are potential issues – a number of the social secretaries said that it could be harder to think of ideas for sober socials, whereas drinking activities tended to follow the same structure each time. Rachael Ralph and Greg Roffey (Badminton) noted a number of factors to consider when organising sober socials: “numbers, potentially transport, cost, timings, safety, whether it is all inclusive and (especially for the badminton club as we have a team) whether it would be wise to run a particular social before training or matches.”

I know a lot of people who feel uncomfortable going to socials if they aren’t drinking, and perhaps more should be done to accommodate this

All of the social secretaries tried to strike a balance between sober and non-sober socials (roughly half each), and stressed the importance of not making people feel pressured to drink. Rachael also noted that there was crossover – people could attend both the sober and non-sober socials and drink or not drink anyway. I asked whether the non-sober socials were more in demand by the membership but none of the social secs really thought this was the case – a wide range of socials and an emphasis on inclusivity and a positive atmosphere helped cater for everyone.

Do the social secs think that Warwick does enough to cater for non-drinkers? Lucy said: “I think it depends on the society. I know a lot of people who feel uncomfortable going to socials if they aren’t drinking, and perhaps more should be done to accommodate this. People should put less pressure on people during circles or bar crawls, etc., so people feel like they can take part even if they intend to stay sober.”

Sober socials should not be organized with solely the ‘non-drinker’ in mind but instead as a social event which promotes complete social inclusion

Theo Guinness and Rosie Mullen (Classics Society) expressed similar concerns. Rosie said: “At the moment, it’s my personal opinion that a lot of societies don’t do enough to reassure their sober members, as I tend to hear from freshers about being forced to drink in the circles of other societies – this is definitely a result of stereotypes about uni societies more than anything. But I definitely think that if more was done to advertise sober socials on campus, then a lot of sober freshers would feel way more comfortable joining societies – even if most societies are very sober-friendly anyway! I think it’s just a case of reassuring freshers that societies aren’t all as scary or wild as they might have originally imagined!”

I also spoke to Jemma Ansell, the Welfare and Campaigns Officer at the SU, regarding the benefits of sober socials. She noted the numerous health benefits, but went on to stress “their increased accessibility and inclusivity of every society or club member in attendance. Sober socials should not be organized with solely the ‘non-drinker’ in mind, but instead as a social event which promotes complete social inclusion.

We need to decentralise the idea of alcohol consumption as the point and purpose of socials

“If we think of sober socials and solely socials with an absence of alcohol, I think we’ve missed the mark. We need to decentralise the idea of alcohol consumption as the point and purpose of socials, and instead regard sober socials as simply another opportunity to interact as a collective. I am not suggesting that every social should be void of alcohol, but instead for students to acknowledge sober socials as a valuable tool for inclusivity.”

Nobody is pushing for campus-wide prohibition any time soon, but as abstinence becomes increasingly popular among students, it would be worth considering the options on offer for teetotal students. Societies and sports clubs are already leading the way with the social activities on offer, but maybe it’s time for the SU and university to get onboard too?

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