Whether it’s for religious, professional, social, personal or health reasons, many university students choose not to drink, or to drink very scarcely. Surprising? Maybe – after all, popular media has long depicted uni-goers as irresponsible party animals who pressure and are pressured by their peers to get drunk, night after night. This concept seems better suited for an R-rated college comedy than for the real and diverse campuses across Canada. Extreme and generalized, this view fails to encompass the varied and complex relationships students have with alcohol.
So, how do those students who abstain from drinking fit into this “drinking culture” stereotype? Are these students sacrificing a crucial part of the university experience by turning down alcohol? Do they live marginalized and asocial lives?
As you can imagine, for most of them, the answer is “no.” Or rather: “no, but…” Here’s a brief look at some of the experiences of those who don’t drink.
Allergies and Physical Intolerance Reasons
For some, the decision to adopt a dry policy is health-based. As with any food, some people are allergic to alcohol. This makes for an easy, no-brainer justification for abstaining from the drink in social settings. In the same way that certain individuals should avoid nuts, certain people should avoid alcohol to prevent hives, swelling, or even death.
One subset of the allergy group are those individuals who have been born with certain genes that alter their ability to break down alcohol, a phenomenon commonly known as alcohol flushing syndrome. It arises from a genetic mutation that yields a partially inactive form of the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase II (ALDH2), which normally breaks down acetaldehyde, a by-product of alcohol. The result is the accumulation of acetaldehyde in the body, which can have a variety of downsides, including facial flushing and skin inflammation in the short-term, and hypertension, esophageal cancer and coronary spastic angina over the long-term. Although it is more common in women and those of East Asian descent, the reality is that it’s something that anyone could have. Affected individuals show higher alcohol sensitivity and have been shown to drink less than their counterparts, which makes sense considering the side effects.
Another major reason to abstain from the drink is faith. Many religions urge their members to abstain from alcohol, including Islam, some forms of Christianity (Baptism, Pentecostalism, Methodism), and Mormonism. Those who students who follow an abstaining faith usually apply their religious rules by personal choice and in a way that best fits their lifestyle.
“Not drinking means that I just don’t have anything to share when people talk about beer preferences or drinking experiences… but there are plenty of other things people can talk about as long as other people are willing to talk about them, which is always the case.” - Ali Arshad (B.Sc.(Eng) ’16)
During his years at U of A, Mergim Binakaj (B.Sc. ‘15), a practising Muslim who has decided to remain drink free, recalls always being questioned when he explained his choice:
“The first question I'll always hear is people asking if it's “a personal, or a religious thing”— always brings a laugh to me, because if it were a religious thing it would also qualify as being a personal thing.”
He highlights one struggle of religious non-drinkers: whether or not to bring religion into the discussion to justify their lifestyle. If he calls it personal, Binakaj describes feeling “ashamed for being afraid to espouse how [he] identifies religiously”. The alternative, however, can be riskier since it involves taking on a religious label, a heavy responsibility in some cases.
Moreover, he believes that—if current xenophobic trends endure—individuals from minority groups may use drinking more and more as a way of building bridges and be accepted, even if it trumps their own values.
Recalling a moment in his first year, Binakaj told me about a time when some new friends had invited him for drinks at Dewey’s with their own group of friends. As he joined this table of mostly strangers, one of his friends offered him a drink.
He remembers “feel[ing] the rest of the people being perplexed, and joking that this guy was turning away a drink that a girl had just bought him. So, in order to avoid their judgment, [he] had the beer.”
Apart from isolated events, however, most non-drinkers (including Mergim) I spoke to felt that, beyond the occasional questions, their peers respected their decision.
“I don’t think I ever felt left out or singled out” recent graduate Ali Arshad told me when we chatted. Although there was this one time at a party when a slightly intoxicated host questioned his decision and kept insisting that Ali should do a keg stand. “He couldn’t comprehend that I had the power to say no to a keg stand.”
Personal Choice and History Reasons
There are individuals out there who simply do not want to drink. This might be because they simply don’t like the taste of alcohol, or they might not enjoy the way that alcohol makes them feel. Some might not enjoy the type of environments where most drinking takes place. Others might have a complicated personal or family history with alcohol that makes the act of drinking unappealing. For instance, Canadian statistics from MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) indicate that the leading cause of death among 16-25 year-olds is motor vehicle accidents, and that alcohol is involved 55% of the time. If you’ve had a loved one injured or worse in one of these accidents, you might be reluctant to partake.
Many students are choosing to drink little or not at all for a variety of reasons, while others actively take part in university party life the “classic” way, by drinking. What is evident is that the majority of social groups tell tales that are neither sensationalist nor destructive, as the mainstream college drinking culture would have it. Rather, each groups and individuals deals with intra- and interpersonal challenges of their own and therefore relate to alcohol in different ways, a trend that will continue to grow along with the diversity of our campuses. Starting with the omnipresent fear of missing out, most of us have our share of apprehensions when it comes to alcohol. Thus, as many students already do, we owe it to each other to be invariably supportive and we owe it to ourselves to be self-respecting. There’s more to us than what we do or don’t drink.
Resources You Might Want to Check Out Yourself:
Relationships are a big part of the student life experience – from friends to food, a large portion of our adult associations are formed during our university years, and this includes our relationship with alcohol. In our latest series of stories, YouAlberta has partnered with the Healthy Campus Unit to explore a variety of student-alcohol relationships.
Catherine is a 2016 BSc graduate (in Bio and English) who will be tackling a BEd in Secondary Education this September. She currently works at the Centre for Teaching and Learning and her passions include children’s health and flat-faced pets. When she isn’t eating or chuckling to herself, Catherine enjoys playing piano, exploring the river valley and spiralling into existential reflections while stargazing.