Culture shift: What’s behind a decline in drinking worldwide

Toby Melville/Reuters
Workers outside of a pub in the City of London Oct. 18, 2017. A traditional pastime of lunch or after-work drinks with colleagues may be fading, part of a worldwide trend that is seeing a drop in the overall percentage of people who consume alcoholic beverages.
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Since 2000, the number of drinkers in the world decreased by almost 5 percentage points, according to the World Health Organization. Drinking is down significantly in some regions, such as Europe, which has seen a 10 percentage point decrease, with Russia and former Soviet bloc countries leading the trend. Shifts in social norms, as well as an increased understanding of the health and economic impacts, may be driving the decline. Societal tolerance for intoxication appears to have diminished, underlined by the nomination process of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court amid allegations of heavy drinking and sexual misconduct. A recent Lancet study made international headlines for concluding that no amount of alcohol is safe, running up against mainstream belief that a small amount is actually healthy. Some drops in drinking rates may be linked to economic factors and alcohol taxes. Across the world, it is young people who are embracing sobriety most enthusiastically. James King, student association president of Oxford’s Linacre College, says the school has tried to welcome teetotalers with alcohol-free initiatives. “The student culture of going out and drinking all the time is slowly changing,” he says.

Why We Wrote This

In many places around the world, drinking alcohol has long been associated with growing up or simply having a good time. But there's growing evidence that is changing.

It’s noon at the Westminster Arms, a favorite haunt among British politicians and civil service members. This London pub, just a few blocks from the Houses of Parliament, is a place of dealmaking over power lunches or rowdy happy hours. There is even a bell installed in the wall that alerts officials when it is time to rush back to vote on a bill.

It’s not especially crowded on this rainy Friday afternoon, however. “It used to be that this place would have been packed,” says a policy adviser for the United Kingdom Civil Service who preferred to remain anonymous. He says when he was hired in the ’70s “it was almost illegal” not to migrate here for lunch or after hours, especially on a Friday. But the tradition, common into the ’90s, is fast fading. “It’s alien to my Millennial colleagues to go out for a drink at lunch. I don’t understand it,” he says.

Ben Wright, author of “Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking,” says it’s part of a larger shift in behavior among British politicians, driven by public scrutiny over social media and more women in politics who have upset the “old boys’ club” that dominated British politics, and influenced drinking culture, for 300 years. “There was quite an extraordinary level of daily, on-the-job-drinking that has gone,” Mr. Wright says. Now officials often abstain from drinking heavily on the job for fear of appearing “unserious and frivolous,” he says.

Why We Wrote This

In many places around the world, drinking alcohol has long been associated with growing up or simply having a good time. But there's growing evidence that is changing.

It’s not just British politicians. Since 2000, the number of drinkers in the world has decreased by almost 5 percentage points, from 47.6 to 43.0, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Drinking is down significantly in some regions, particularly in Europe, which has seen a 10 percentage point decrease in the percentage of drinkers, with Russia and former Soviet bloc countries largely driving the numbers down. Across the globe, it is young people who are embracing sobriety most enthusiastically, from Iceland, to Canada, to the UK, to Japan.


World Health Organization

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

The global picture is a mixed bag. Numbers are down in many places because the baseline was so high to begin with. And in other parts of the world, like India and China, drinking rates are up. Global per capita consumption is up too. If globalization has brought more health consciousness to places like eastern Europe, it’s also delivered products once far less accessible.

Vladimir Poznyak, the coordinator of the Management of Substance Abuse department at the WHO in Geneva, says that just as tobacco went from an attractive substance to deeply stigmatized in a short span, so too could alcohol. Already societal tolerance toward intoxication has gone down. A study in the Lancet this summer funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made international headlines for concluding that no amount of alcohol is safe – running up against mainstream belief that a small amount is actually healthy.

But Dr. Poznyak says that persisting attitudes and lifestyle changes require government intervention. “You can’t expect rapid cultural changes if there will be no measures introduced by governments that make healthier choices easier for a person to make,” he says.

To that end, the WHO just launched last month a new initiative called SAFER, which calls on governments to adopt policies to help reduce harms associated with alcohol use, such as enforcing bans or tax increases.

More Russians say nyet

Such measures have been credited for widespread drops in alcohol use in Russia, a notoriously hard-drinking country where common stereotypes revolve around vodka toasts and drunken, wintry revelries. Some of that culture is rooted in history. Russia is part of northern Europe’s pre-industrial "vodka belt," where growing-seasons were short, winters long and dark, and there was little to do for much of the year. Russian drinking traditions are mainly male-oriented; statistics show that women, whose responsibilities in past times never paused, drink far less than men to this day. The Soviet system did little to curb heavy drinking, perhaps seeing it as a useful outlet. When reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to enforce a complete prohibition on alcohol production and sales in 1987, the policy backfired so disastrously that his successors – until recently – have shied away from tackling the problem.

The government of Vladimir Putin has improved controls over alcohol production and distribution, banned sales to minors, limited locations where alcoholic drinks can be sold, toughened penalties issued by police for driving under the influence, and introduced a massive public education campaign to warn about the dangers of drinking. It led Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova to claim earlier this year that Russian alcohol consumption has fallen by 80 percent in the past five years.

While those numbers are criticized as wildly exaggerated – especially since they don’t account for unregulated alcohol consumption of samagon, or moonshine, available on the black market – a decline is clear. According to WHO figures, per capita consumption decreased from 18.7 liters in 2005 to 11.7 liters in 2016. There has also been a decline in Russian mortality due to alcohol intoxication. Anecdotally, Russians say they see people around them drinking less. Dmitry Movchan, deputy chief doctor at the Marshak Clinic, a private Moscow clinic that treats alcoholism and drug addiction, notes a decline in patients who turn to the clinic with alcohol problems.


World Health Organization

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Tatiana Lysova, an expert with the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent public polling agency, says two groups of Russians have reduced their alcohol intake. One is the working class population facing declines in real incomes and the rising price of quality, retail alcohol. Rates are harder to quantify, because they might be turning to cheaper samagon. They could also return to drinking when their household economies improve.

That’s a risk factor in the UK too. Aveek Bhattacharya, a policy analyst at the London-based Institute of Alcohol Studies, says modest overall declines in drinking among Britons since 2005 can be most clearly linked to economic factors such as the 2008 recession, as well as higher alcohol taxes. This may help explain why low-income and blue-collar respondents actually report drinking less than those in professional occupations – contrary to abiding stereotypes. But he also cautions that modest wage growth and a recent drop in the real cost of alcohol when adjusted for inflation could reverse these trends.

The other group is highly educated and high-income Russians, who could be eschewing alcohol more permanently as they become more health conscious, says Ms. Lysova. “In this [group] people may have really changed their lifestyle due to the public campaign that stresses health concerns and makes it seem prestigious to cut down or quit,” she says.

Mikhail Popov, a Moscow-based, middle-aged businessman, says he sees a marked difference in his drinking as a young man during the USSR’s collapse and the social breakdown of the 1990s and that of his 22-year-old son in 2018. “He might have a few beers with friends once in a while, but that’s it," he says.

In Japan, ‘nominication’ loses popularity

Differences between generations are not limited to eastern Europe. Japan’s hard-drinking happy hours are notorious fixtures of work life. Sometimes called “nominication” (“nomi” meaning drink and “nication” stemming from communication), the sessions are seen as a pathway for colleagues who don’t express themselves in the workplace to talk more openly, even foster team spirit.

But they aren’t as popular as they once were, says Naoko Kuga, an analyst at the NLI Research Institute in Tokyo. She owes that to the nation’s protracted economic downturn, the aging population, and a growing health consciousness among the working population. “It seems young people these days are less willing to go to ‘traditional nominication,’ in which they spend hours drinking with their boss, for the sake of good relations,” she says.

Shuji Tamada, a publishing company employee in the western city of Nara, says after work, he and his wife prioritize their three children. Unlike his parents’ generation, he says he pays far more attention to his own health and makes family-friendly lifestyle choices for his family. That might include going to restaurants, shopping, or traveling.

“In a full-fledged consuming society, there are a variety of pleasures other than drinking,” Ms. Kuga says.

In Japan, a survey by the National Tax Agency showed the nation’s alcohol consumption in 2016 had declined 13 percent from its peak in 1996. This is particularly pronounced among young people. According to a study by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, in 1996, 36.2 percent of those in their 20s had a drinking habit (three days or more per week of 180 milliliters of alcohol). That number fell to 10.9 percent in 2016.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Thorgeir Tryggvason (L.) and Birta Zimsen talk about the drinking habits of teenagers in Iceland, on Dec. 7, 2017 in Reykjavik, Iceland. Iceland has dramatically reduced teen alcohol and drug use by getting children more involved in sports, imposing a 10 p.m. curfew for those under 18, and encouraging more time spent with parents. Thorgeir says he didn't take his first drink until age 20 because he was a serious soccer player. Birta, who was voted Miss Tenth Grade last year, has never had an alcoholic drink and says she isn't interested.

In fact, in many countries it is the youngest citizens who are driving the trends toward greater global sobriety, from Australia to Iceland. According to the British Office of National Statistics (ONS), 60 percent of those ages 16 to 24 surveyed in 2005 said they drank in the previous week. By 2017, that percentage had fallen to 50 percent. They are also reporting that they binge less, says Ben Windsor-Shellard, head of lifestyle and risk factors analysis at the ONS.

More young people are also abstaining altogether now than they did in 2005. At that time, 19 percent of Britons ages 16 to 24 reported not drinking at all. In 2017, 23 percent said they were teetotalers.

Teetotalism rates vary widely between white Britons and those of “other” ethnic origin: 15.8 percent of white respondents said they were teetotalers, while 50.6 percent of those in “other ethnicities” said the same. Mr. Windsor-Shellard says teetotalism rates are highest in London, which is one of the UK’s most ethnically diverse areas.

Teetotalism is finding new space on college campuses, especially with demographic change. At the University of Oxford, it is increasingly embraced as a normal choice.

James King, president of the student association Common Room at Oxford’s Linacre College, says his committee has tried to make non-drinking students feel welcome through new, alcohol-free initiatives including providing more soft drinks at the college bar. “We’re trying to broaden the bar’s appeal as a general social space, rather than as a place exclusively for drinking alcohol,” says Mr. King, a 23-year old PhD candidate in climate science. “The student culture of going out and drinking all the time is slowly changing.”

Yet mistaken assumptions persist, says the WHO's Poznyak. While alcohol is consumed worldwide, a majority abstain from drinking. In 2016, 57 percent of the population over age 15 had not consumed alcohol in the previous year. “In spite of all the changes in marketing, etc., most people don’t drink alcohol at all,” he says. “For many countries, many populations, drinking is not the norm.”

The sense of inevitability can create a vicious cycle, says Esme Fuller-Thomson, professor in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto. Drinking among young Canadians continues to go down, for example, but parents too often maintain a “kids will be kids” attitude. They permit young people to drink in their homes or provide alcohol to minors in an effort to keep them safer than drinking outside of parental supervision. “They haven’t realized that it is not inevitable that kids are going to drink,” she says.

Yet given the trend lines – that fewer kids are turning to alcohol, so there’s less need to offer it in a safe environment – the cycle could easily spin in the opposite direction. 

Fred Weir contributed reporting from Moscow and Takehiko Kambayashi from Tokyo.

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