Abstaining from Alcohol: Abstainers, Teetotalers, or Non-Drinkers

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

The majority of people in most countries around the world drink alcoholic beverages, at least occasionally. 1 Within any country, women are more likely than men to abstain and there are often wide variations in abstention based on religion, social class, geographic region, and cultural tradition.

Religion is the most common reason for abstaining. Another reason for abstaining is health or medical. Some people are advised not to drink because of a personal or family history of alcohol dependence, because they are taking certain medications, because they are pregnant, or for other health reasons. Most people don’t realize that, unless there are good reasons not to drink, consuming alcohol in moderation is associated with better health and greater longevity than is abstention. Other common reasons for not drinking include moral objections, fear of loss of control, cultural or family tradition, and dislike of the taste of alcoholic beverages.

Abstainers often face social pressure to drink. In France, for example, an abstainer is generally scorned because “he or she is presumed to be dour, a kill-joy, and even likely to be critical of any enjoyment that others may have.” In Chile, “an abstainer is generally distrusted; the assumption is that the only reason one might not drink is in order to be able to take advantage of others when they have had too much to drink.” 2

It’s impolite to ask abstainers why they don’t drink and they should never, ever be pressured to consume alcohol. Good hosts provide a variety of appealing non-alcohol beverages for the enjoyment of any guests who choose not to drink.

The following graph indicates the proportion of abstainers in a selection of Western countries. 3

Abstention in the U.S. is closely associated with educational level. The more educated they are, the more likely people are to consume alcohol. 4

Abstention in the U.S. is also closely associated with social status. 5 The higher the social class, the lower the abstention, as this graphic illustrates.

Research by economist Christopher Auld of the University of Calgary indicates that Canadian men who drink alcohol earn about 10% more than do abstainers. 6 His study took into account or controlled for age, education, occupation, region and health. This suggests that males who drink may be more economically productive than abstainers. Other research indicates that abstainers tend to be more unhealthy, 7 to suffer more acute hospitalization, 8 and to be absent more from employment. 9 Professor Auld notes that his findings are similar to those found in Britain and the U.S.

Everybody Has It!

Although abstainers do not consume alcoholic beverages, their bodies nevertheless contain alcohol. That’s because the human body produces its own supply of alcohol naturally on a continuous basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Therefore, we always have alcohol in our bodies. 11 In addition many medications contain alcohol. For example, cough medicines are often over half alcohol. And many foods commonly contain various amounts of alcohol. One glass of milk can sometimes give a person a .02 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) on a Breathalyzer test. That’s enough in some states for persons under age 21 to lose their drivers license and be fined. 12

Teetotal Trivia

The terms alcohol abstainer and non-drinker are self-evident, but teetotaler is not. A teetotaler is an abstainer or non-drinker who never consumes any alcohol. Such a person practices teetotalism, and is a teetotal person.

It’s natural to assume that the term teetotaler derives from the fact that abstainers “totally drink tea” instead of consuming any alcohol. However, a more plausible explanation is based on the fact that in the early 1800s it was common to repeat the initial letter of a word for emphasis. “Most sources agree that the first application of “teetotal” to drinking was in a speech by Richard Turner, a member of the British Temperance Society, in which he urged everyone to abstain tee-totally from all forms of alcohol.” 10


References and Readings

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