Abstaining from Alcohol: Abstainers or Non-Drinkers

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, geography, and cultural tradition.

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 meds, 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 alcohol.

Abstainers often face social pressure to drink. In France, for instance, 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. Of course, they should never, ever be pressured to drink alcohol.

Good hosts provide a variety of appealing non-alcohol beverages for the enjoyment of any guests who choose not to drink. See Non-Alcoholic Drink Recipes for Great Drinks.

Abstaining from Alcohol


This graph shows the proportion of abstainers in a selection of Western countries.3

Proportion of Abstainers in Western Countries

Abstention in the U.S. is linked 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 linked 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.

Proportion of Abstainers by Class and Gender

Research by economist Christopher Auld of the University of Calgary shows 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. Yet their bodies contain alcohol. That’s because the human body produces alcohol naturally 24/7. Therefore, we always have alcohol in our bodies.11

In addition many meds 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 Breath 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. 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.

But 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, p. 100.

3. IARD.

4. DHHS. National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.

5. Holder, H. Alcohol and the Community.

6. Drink and Grow Rich. Wall Street J, May 4, 2012.

7. Wiley, J., and Comacho, T. Life-style and future health. Prev Med, 9, 1-2

8. Ford, G. Wines, Beer and Spirits. The World’s Most Versatile Health Foods, in press, p. 154.

9. Vasse, R., et al. Association between work stress, alcohol and sickness absence. Addict, 93(2), 231-241.

10. Teetotalers.

11. Ragab, A. et al. Endogenous ethanol production levels, J Alco Drug Depend, 3:3.

12. Quick Facts on Alcohol and Driving. Quality L.I.F.E.