One of the problems of “sober culture” is that it is generally associated with teenagers, those with strong religious beliefs, and people in recovery. It has not typically represented the average woman and man who decide not to drink alcohol for any of the other countless reasons: they don’t like the taste, they worry about the potential health consequences, they don’t want the empty calories, they want to spend their money on other things that bring them joy. Yet, if an individual declares that they are choosing to remain sober, it evokes questions from their audience: “are they in rehab?”, “did they become religious?”, or, if the individual is a woman, the unavoidable “is she pregnant?” that leads to careful glances at the woman’s midsection for evidence of a bump.
But, in fact approximately 46% of people in the Americas are choosing to abstain from alcohol, more than half of whom are former drinkers.
Maybe the problem in the United States, among many other countries, is the fact that drinking alcohol is the norm. Consider all the places and events where drinking is supported. Going on a trip? Have a drink at the terminal while waiting for your flight to board, and then select from a variety of wine, beer, and spirits while you are in the air. At a baseball game? Nothing is better than a cold beer to go along with your peanuts and cracker jacks. Attending a wedding? At best, there’s an open bar. At worst, it’s a dry wedding (but most likely you will find at least one person with a flask stowed away).
These are just a few examples of the ubiquitous nature of alcohol. So it makes sense that people who are deciding to abstain from alcohol have a hard time feeling supported. How can we, as a society, make sobriety not just a choice but the default?
Maybe the answer lies in the amazing efforts of the anti-smoking campaigns of the earlier part of this century. The Truth Campaign, for example, was notorious for showing the public what was on the other side of those glossy ads of sophisticated, handsome smokers. The “truth” was that the heads of the tobacco companies (mostly older, white men) were making billions of dollars by carefully tapping into consumers’ psyches to convince them that their cigarettes, though highly addictive and deadly, would make them cooler, sexier, smarter, or whatever adjective the target population coveted.
Alcohol companies are not much different. Their main goal is to get as many customers as possible to buy and consume their products, regardless of how deadly they are. Take, for example the CEO of Anheuser-Busch, Carlos Brito, who has this to say:
“At the heart of our business, we strive to understand what unites people. From sports, to music, to dinner parties, or nights out with friends and family, it’s our goal to make those occasions even better with our extensive product portfolio.”
Clearly, the narrative he is trying to sell to keep his $1.49 Billion dollar company afloat is that “alcohol brings people together”.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States. Approximately 88,000 men and women die each year from alcohol related causes. And alcohol is the source of a myriad of other morbidities, including non-fatal accidents, chronic diseases, birth defects and social harms. None of which are listed alongside photos of people drinking Michelob Ultra at the lake.
We need to rebel against these companies that lie in order to sell their products and that analyze and target the weaknesses of the most vulnerable and susceptible Americans. It’s not enough to just report on another alcohol-related death because, as callous as it may sound, we have become desensitized to it in the media. We need to call out the alcohol industry by name. “Today, another young person died due to Bacardi, or Jim Beam, or Smirnoff.” Once we start to associate alcohol not only with “good times”, but with the truth, we may no longer question why people chose to be sober.