Again: more young people are choosing not to drink alcohol

It’s something often overlooked but what can be found in many countries: young people are drinking less alcohol. But a news study shows that young people in England aren’t just drinking less alcohol, more of them are never taking up alcohol at all, and that the increase is widespread among young people.

From the press release:

Researchers at University College London analysed data from the annual Health Survey for England and found that the proportion of 16-24 year olds who don’t drink alcohol has increased from 18% in 2005 to 29% in 2015.

The authors found this trend to be largely due to an increasing number of people who had never been drinkers, from 9% in 2005 to 17% in 2015. There were also significant decreases in the number of young people who drank above recommended limits (from 43% to 28%) or who binge drank (27% to 18%). More young people were also engaging in weekly abstinence (from 35% to 50%)

Dr Linda Ng Fat, corresponding author of the study said: “Increases in non-drinking among young people were found across a broad range of groups, including those living in northern or southern regions of England, among the white population, those in full-time education, in employment and across all social classes and healthier groups. That the increase in non-drinking was found across many different groups suggests that non-drinking may becoming more mainstream among young people which could be caused by cultural factors.”

Dr Ng Fat said: “These trends are to be welcomed from a public-health standpoint. Factors influencing the shift away from drinking should be capitalised on going forward to ensure that healthier drinking behaviours in young people continue to be encouraged.”

Dr Linda Ng Fat added: “The increase in young people who choose not to drink alcohol suggests that this behaviour maybe becoming more acceptable, whereas risky behaviours such as binge drinking may be becoming less normalised.”

Increases in non-drinking however were not found among ethnic minorities, those with poor mental health and smokers suggesting that the risky behaviours of smoking and alcohol continue to cluster.

The researchers examined data on 9,699 people aged 16-24 years collected as part of the Health Survey for England 2005-2015, an annual, cross-sectional, nationally representative survey looking at changes in the health and lifestyles of people across England. The authors analysed the proportion of non-drinkers among social demographic and health sub-groups, along with alcohol units consumed by those that did drink and levels of binge drinking.

The authors caution that the cross-sectional, observational nature of this study does not allow for conclusions about cause and effect.

Abstract of the study:

Non-drinking among young people has increased over the past decade in England, yet the underlying factor driving this change is unknown. Traditionally non-drinking has been found to be associated with lower socio-economic status and poorer health. This study explores among which sub-groups non-drinking has increased, and how this correlates with changes in drinking patterns, to identify whether behaviours are becoming more polarised, or reduction is widespread among young people.

Among participants aged 16 to 24 years (N = 9699), within the annual cross-sectional nationally-representative Health Survey for England 2005–2015 datasets, the following analyses were conducted: 1) The proportion of non-drinkers among social-demographic and health sub-groups by year, and tests for linear trends among sub-groups, adjusting for age were calculated. In pooled analyses, an interaction between year and each variable was modelled in sex- and age-adjusted logistic regression models on the odds of being a non-drinker versus drinker 2) At the population level, spearman correlation co-efficients were calculated between the proportion non-drinking and the mean alcohol units consumed and binge drinking on the heaviest drinking day, by year. Ordinary least squares regression analyses were used, modelling the proportion non-drinking as the independent variable, and the mean units/binge drinking as the dependent variable.

Rates of non-drinking increased from 18% (95%CI 16–22%) in 2005 to 29% (25–33%) in 2015 (test for trend; p < 0.001), largely attributable to increases in lifetime abstention. Not drinking in the past week increased from 35% (32–39%) to 50% (45–55%) (p < 0.001). Significant linear increases in non-drinking were found among most sub-groups including healthier sub-groups (non-smokers, those with high physical activity and good mental health), white ethnicity, north and south regions, in full-time education, and employed. No significant increases in non-drinking were found among smokers, ethnic minorities and those with poor mental health. At the population-level, significant negative correlations were found between increases in non-drinking and declines in the mean units consumed (ρ = − 0.85, p < 0.001), and binge drinking (ρ = − 0.87, p < 0.001).

Increases in non-drinking among young people has coincided with a delayed initiation into alcohol consumption, and are to be welcomed. Future research should explore attitudes towards drinking among young people.

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