Most people in most countries around the world drink alcoholic beverages, at least occasionally.1 There are clear patterns in abstaining from alcohol. Within any country, women are less likely than men to drink. Also there are often wide variations in abstention based on religion, social class, geographic region, and cultural tradition.
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Religion is the most common reason for abstaining from alcohol. Another reason is health or medical. Some people don’t drink because of a personal or family history of alcoholism. Others abstain because they are taking certain medications, because they are pregnant, or for other health reasons. 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. People assume that the only reason one might not drink is to take advantage of others when they have had too much to drink.” 2
Of course, it’s impolite to ask abstainers why they don’t drink. Naturally, 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.
This graph shows 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. However, alcohol-related problems decline with higher status.
Research by economist Christopher Auld of the University of Calgary indicates that Canadian men who drink alcohol earn about 10% more than 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!
Abstainers don’t consume alcohol. Nevertheless, their bodies contain alcohol. That’s because the human body produces alcohol naturally 24/7. 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
The terms alcohol abstainer and non-drinker are self-evident. However, 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.” That is, instead of drinking alcohol. However, there’s a more plausible explanation. It’s 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 use of “teetotal” for non-drinkers was in a speech by Richard Turner. He was a member of the British Temperance Society. In the speech he urged everyone to abstain tee-totally from all alcohol. 10
1. The best source of information on abstainers and abstaining from alcohol is the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD).
2. Heath, D. Drinking Occasions. Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel. 2000, p. 100.
4. DHHS. National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.
5. Holder, H. Alcohol and the Community. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U Press, 1998.
6. Drink and Grow Rich. Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2002.
7. Wiley, J., and Comacho, T. Life-style and future health. Prev Med, 1980, 9, 1-2
8. 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. Addict, 1998, 93(2), 231-241.
11. Ragab, A. et al. Endogenous ethanol production levels, J Alco Drug Depend, 2015, 3:3.
12. Quick Facts on Alcohol and Driving. Quality L.I.F.E.