Whenever Katrina Cliffe reached for a glass of wine during Britain’s first lockdown in 2020, it was done as “a reward to get through or survive the day.” Running a business and caring for her two children at home meant she was always “looking for an excuse,” however small in quantity, to drink.
“I said to myself things need to change. I can’t just keep existing,” says the entrepreneur from Huddersfield, in northern England. Like many Britons, she decided to give up alcohol for “Dry January” last year. Quitting alcohol gave her another chance to enjoy her passion for ice skating without fatigue.
“It was about taking control of the situation rather than the situation taking control of me,” she says. Ms. Cliffe has since gone a whole year alcohol-free and now enjoys a new lease of energy.
Despite their reputation for excessive drinking, more Britons than ever are quitting alcohol altogether, with a third of people quitting since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is a sign of a major cultural shift, rooted in the urge for healthier lifestyles and “meaningful connections,” says Jo Ferbrache, a blogger and public speaker on sobriety, self-nicknamed Sober Jo.
“A movement is happening with more and more people standing up to say that they are proud not to drink alcohol, sharing the joys of sobriety or drinking mindfully, and slowly moving away from the stigma that not drinking means that you are boring,” she says.
A rebellion against alcohol?
While the pandemic spurred many, like Ms. Cliffe, to alter habits, Britain’s teetotal movement has risen steadily since the turn of the millennium. According to campaign group Alcohol Change UK, the overall amount of alcohol consumed in the United Kingdom, the proportion of people drinking, and the amount drinkers say they consume have all fallen since 2005.
This trend is especially high among younger drinkers. In 2001, about 10% of 16-to-24-year-olds classed themselves as alcohol-abstinent. By 2016, that had risen to nearly a quarter.
Much of that may be driven by young people’s better understanding, when compared to older generations, of the importance of physical and mental health, says Andrew Misell, director for Wales at Alcohol Change UK.
“Young people have seen the boomer generation and Generation X rely on alcohol and have rebelled against that,” he says. Multiculturalism, too, has opened up doors for people to socialize with nondrinkers from diverse communities such as Britain’s Muslim population.
Yet many face challenges of overcoming deep-rooted expectations and habits. London-born Victoria Kingsland, who quit drinking three years ago, says that it is widely accepted that people drink to “get drunk,” especially in the U.K.
In office spaces, there is often talk about needing a glass of wine at night to wind down.
“That mentality shows an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. … You convince yourself it’s fine and that everyone does it,” she says.
The dry-drinking market
Nondrinking entrepreneurs are already aiming to redress the balance with alcohol-free alternatives, once the preserve of a niche industry.
Having quit alcohol to aid the chance of conceiving a child, Stuart Elkington saw his “month by month” sober life snowball into finding alcohol-free alternatives. Inspired by his time living in Spain, where drinking such alternatives are “commonplace,” he set up his own wholesale business, Drydrinker, in 2016, selling alternative premium drinks.
Mr. Elkington’s mission to encourage “dry drinks” as a “lifestyle choice as well as a consumer choice” has gained newfound momentum. At the start of the new year, he helped open one of London’s first alcohol-free off-licences (the British equivalent of a liquor store), one of two new independent shops that have sprung up at the start of 2022.
Supermarkets are keen too. Sainsbury’s, one of Britain’s biggest groceries, opened up an experimental “no-alcohol pub” in 2019. The number of products in its own no-beer alternative line has grown by 300% in the past year.
“There’s been a real gold rush,” says Mr. Elkington, now a father to two children and a self-professed dry drinker for eight years. “If you weren’t drinking 10 years ago, people assumed you were ill.”
A shift in normalizing, and redefining, sobriety is underway. Not so long ago, sobriety in the U.K. was “associated with people with addictions and serious problems,” says Mr. Misell. “Now it’s associated with people who just want a change in lifestyle, without experiencing life-changing difficulties.”
Challenges remain, with increasing concern that women in their late 20s and 30s, in particular, are drinking more frequently and heavily as a coping mechanism at home, as well as increasingly taking part in high-end professions with drinking cultures such as finance.
This article first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.