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

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

Proportion of Abstainers in Western Countries

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

Proportion of U.S. Pop by Education who drank alcohol within a previous month

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.

Proportion of Abstainers by Class and Gender

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. 11In 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

  • 1. The best source of information on abstainers is International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP). Who are the Abstainers? Washington, DC: International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP Reports #8), June 2000. [Abstention is defined differently in different countries and even by different researchers in the same country. An abstainer can be defined as a person who has never consumed an alcoholic beverage, as not having consumed one within a fixed period of time (for example, within the past year), as not having consumed more than a specific number of drinks within a given period of time (for example, having never consumed more than 12 drinks in any year), and so on. And of course the individual may self-define abstinence differently than does a researcher.]
  • 2. Heath, D.B. Drinking Occasions: Comparative Perspectives on Alcohol and Culture. Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel. 2000, p. 100.
  • 3. International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP). Who are the Abstainers? Washington, DC: International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP Reports #8), June 2000, pp. 8-9.
  • 4. U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 1997. Washington, DC: DHHS, 1998; Wright, J. W. (Ed.) The New York Times 2000 Almanac. New York: Penguin, 1999, p. 398.
  • 5. Holder, H. D. Alcohol and the Community: A System Approach to Prevention. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • 6. Drink and Grow Rich. Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2002; Auld, C. Smoking, Drinking, and Income (manuscript), April 29, 2002
  • 7. Wiley, J., and Comacho, T. Life-style and future health: evidence from the Alameda County Study. Preventive Medicine, 1980, 9, 1-21.
  • 8. Longnecker, M., and MacMahon, B. Associations between alcoholic beverage consumption and hospitalization, 1983 National Health Interview Survey. American Journal of Public Health, 1988, 78(2), 153; Klatsky, A., and Friedman, A. Alcohol use and cardiovascular disease: the Kaiser-Permanente experience. Circulation, 1981, 64 (Supplement III), 32-41; Ford, G. Wines, Beer and Spirits: The World's Most Versatile Health Foods, in press, p. 154.
  • 9. Vasse, R. M., et al. Association between work stress, alcohol and sickness absence. Addiction, 1998, 93(2), 231-241.
  • 10. Teetotalers.com (http://www.teetotalers.com/pages/whatis.htm)
  • 11. Lindiger, W., Taucher, J., Jordan, A., and Vogel, W. Endogenous production of methanol after the consumption of fruit. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 1997, 21, 939-943; Phillips, M., Greenberg, J., and Martinez V., Ostrovsky, Y. M. Endogenous ethanol -- its metabolic, behavioral and biomedical significance. Alcohol, 1986, 3, 239-247.
  • 12. Quick Facts on Alcohol and Driving. Quality L.I.F.E. (www.qualitylife.org/facts_on_alcohol.html.)

Readings

  • Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.
  • Burman, S. The challenge of sobriety: Natural recovery without treatment and self-help groups. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1997, 9, 41-61.
  • Brodsky, A., and Peele, S. AA's Tactics are Harmful. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 93-103.
  • Brown, D. Medication May Help Alcoholics Stay Sober. In: Barbour, S. (Ed.). Alcohol. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. Pp. 144-148.
  • Bufe, C. Studies Show Alcoholics Anonymous Is Ineffective. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 72-81.
  • Burman, S. All-Women Groups Can Help Female Alcoholics. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 220-229.
  • Carr, N. J. Alcoholics Anonymous is Effective. In: Barbour, S. (Ed.). Alcohol. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. Pp. 113-119.
  • Christopher, J. Secular Organizations for Sobriety is an Effective Self-Help Program. In: Barbour, S. (Ed.). Alcohol. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. Pp. 128-134.
  • Christopher, J. How to Stay Sober: Recovery Without Religion. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, l988.
  • Crandell, J. S. Controlled Drinking Can Help Alcoholics Recover. In: Cozic, C. P., and Swisher, K. (Ed.). Chemical Dependency. San Diego: Greenhaven, 199 1. Pp. 218-224.
  • DeSena, J., et al. Overcoming Your Alcohol, Drug and Recovery Habits: An Empowering Alternative to AA and 12-Step Programs. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, 2003.
  • Dorsman, J. How to Quit Drinking Without AA: A Complete Self-Help Guide. Newark, DE: New Dawn, 1993.
  • Ellis, A., and Velten, E. When AA Doesn’t Work for You: Rational Steps to Quitting Alcohol. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade, 1992.
  • Fingarette, H. Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease. Berkeley: University OS California Press, 1988.
  • FitzGerald, K. W. Alcoholism is a Disease. In: Cozic, C. P., and Swisher, K. (Eds.). Chemical Dependency. San Diego: Greenhaven, 199I. Pp. 96-100.
  • Fletcher, A.M. Sober for Good: New Solutions for Drinking Problems -- Advice from Those Who Have Succeeded. NY: Houghton-Mifflin, 2001.
  • Fox, V. Addiction: Change and Choice: The New View of Alcoholism. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp, 1993.
  • Fox, V. Alcoholics Anonymous is Ineffective. In: Barbour, S. Alcohol. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. Pp. 120-127.
  • Galanter, M. Psychotherapy Can Help Alcoholics. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 202-210.
  • Gorski, T. T. Alcoholism Should be Treated as a Disease. In: Barbour, S. (Ed.). Alcohol. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. Pp. 98-104.
  • Gorshi, T. T. Alcoholics Anonymous Is the Most Effective Treatment for Alcoholism. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 64-60.
  • Granfield, R. Coming Clean: Overcoming Addictions without Treatment. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
  • Horvath, A.T. Sex, Drugs, Gambling & Chocolate: A Workbook for Overcoming Addictions. San Louis Obispo, CA: Impact, 1998.
  • House Committee on Health and Long-Time Care. Treatment Designed for Elderly Alcoholics Could be Effective. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 230-237.
  • Humphreys, K., et al. Two pathways out of drinking problems without professional treatment, Addictive Behaviors, 1995, 20(4), 427-441.
  • International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP). Who are the Abstainers? Washington, DC: International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP Reports #8), June 2000.
  • Jellinek, E. M. The Disease Concept of Alcoholism. New Haven, CT: Hillhouse, 1960.
  • Johnson, V. E. I'll Quit Tomorrow: A Practical Guide to Alcoholism Treatment. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980.
  • Kasl, C.D. Many Roads, One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps. NY: HarperPerrenial, 1992.
  • Kishline, A. Alcoholism Should Not be Treated as a Disease. In: Barbour, S. (Ed.). Alcohol. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. Pp. 105-112.
  • Kissir, S. Nutritional Therapy Can Help Alcoholics. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 194-198.
  • Kurtz, E. Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous. Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1979.
  • Marlatt, G. A., and Gordon, J. R. (Eds.). Relapse Prevention. New York: Guilford, 1985.
  • Miller, N. S., and Mahler, J. C. Treatment Centers Effectively Use Twelve-Step Programs to Help Alcoholics. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 61-68.
  • Miller, S.D. The “Miracle” Method: A Radically New Approach to Problem Drinking. NY: W.W. Norton, 1995.
  • Miller, W. R., and Munoz, R. F. How to Control Your Drinking. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1990.
  • Parker, C. B. When Someone You Love Drinks Too Much. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.
  • Patton, P. Buddhism Can Help Alcoholics Stay Sober. In: Barbour, S. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. Pp. 149-156.
  • Peele, S. et al. The Truth about Alcohol and Recovery. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 1999.
  • Peele, S., and Brodsky, A. The Truth about Addiction and Recovery. NY: Fireside, 1991.
  • Rachel, V. A Woman Like You: Life Stories of Women Recovering from Alcoholism and Addiction. NY: Harper & Row, 1985.
  • Roberts, M. The Spirituality of AA Helps Alcoholics. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 69-71.
  • Sanchez-Craig, M. Saying When: How to Quit Drinking or Cut Down. Toronto, Canada: Addiction Research Foundation. 1993.
  • Schaler, J.A. Addiction is a Choice. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2000.
  • Schlesinger, S. E., and Horberg, L. K. Alcoholics Anonymous Can Help Alcoholics Recover. In: Cozic, C. P., and Swisher, K. (Ed.). Chemical Dependency. San Diego: Greenhaven, 199 1. Pp. 212-217.
  • Shockley, M. Acupuncture Is an Effective Treatment for Alcoholism. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 199-201. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 216-219.
  • Schuckit, M. A. Antidepressants May be Effective in Treating Alcoholism. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 216-2 19.
  • Sobell, M. B., and Sobell, L. C. Problem Drinkers: Guided Self-Change Treatment. New York: Guilford, 1993.
  • Trimpey, J. Rational Recovery is an Effective Self-Help Program. In: Barbour, S. (Ed.). Alcohol. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. Pp. 135-143.
  • Trimpey, J. AA's Focus on Spirituality Is Harmful and Unnecessary. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 82-92.
  • Trimpey, J. The Small Book: A Revolutionary Alternative for Overcoming Alcohol and Drug Dependence. New York: Delacorte, 1992.
  • Turk, M. For problem drinkers: A moderate proposal. Business Week, October 23, 1995.
  • Vogler, R. E., and Bartz, W. R. The Better Way to Drink: Moderation and Control of Problem Drinking. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
  • Walsh, D. C., et al. Physicians' Warnings Can Motivate Alcoholics to Seek Treatment. In: Wekesser, C (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 2 I I-2 15.
  • Weinstein, C. Forcing Alcoholic Prisoners to Join AA is Ineffective. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 104- 108.
  • Wright, B., and Wright, D. G. Due to Confront! How to Intervene When Someone You Care About Has an Alcohol or Drug Problem. New York: Master-Media, 1990.