Young people shift the ‘soft stigma’ of alcohol abstinence in Finland and Australia

A cross-cultural analysis of young non-drinkers in Finland and Australia has found both groups employed similar methods to manage the ‘soft stigma’ of abstinence.

Led by Dr Adele Pavlidis and Professor Andy Bennett from Griffith University’s Centre for Social and Cultural Research, researchers interviewed people aged between 18 and 29 who identified as non-drinkers.

Published in the Journal of Youth Studies, the study identified six key ways participants managed the potential stigma and isolation of being a young person who does not drink alcohol:

  • Selecting the right response and crowd — hiding or denying non-drinking status to avoid explaining non-drinking to others
  • Taking the focus away from alcohol — social gatherings with the focus away from alcohol — baking or sports
  • Having a group or scene of non-drinkers — finding others who share similar values and behaviours towards alcohol
  • Being active and having fun — physical recreation or music (festivals, events)
  • Understanding non-drinking as an individual choice and control — emphasis on individual choice without condemning others’ decisions to drink
  • Moralising alcohol consumption — positioning themselves as morally superior to binge-drinking peers.

“Both Finland and Australia have high rates of alcohol consumption but despite this, both countries are experiencing significant reductions in the numbers of people who drink,’’ Dr Pavlidis said.

“In Australia the rate of abstinence increased from 11 per cent in 2007 to 20 per cent in 2017. In Finland the proportion of abstainers in the adult population has remained at 10% for the past decade.”

The researchers interviewed 15 people, eight in Australia and seven in Finland.

“Despite the small sample size, it is large enough to study how the global phenomenon of growing abstainers manifests in local youth cultural practices,’’ Dr Pavlidis said.

“Our findings highlight the how instead of the why, in being a young abstainer.

“Even though young adults face the threat of soft (less severe than other stigma) stigma, they not only use strategies to hide their non-drinking or stay away from drinking situations but also play an active role in redefining social situations and practices and taking a moral stand against the culture of intoxication among youth. These actions will slowly change and reshape youth culture.

“In a culture where refusal of alcohol in a social setting comes with reactions ranging from curiosity to outright exclusion, a better understanding of the ways young people adhere to their choices not to drink will provide deeper insights into consumption choices.”