Drinking behaviour and why people are drinking less with Dr Amy Pennay

November 18, 2021

Dr Pennay has an Honours degree in Criminology and was awarded her PhD through the National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University of Technology, in 2013. Her PhD
was an examination of the social, cultural and economic contexts of alcohol and ‘party drug’ use in Melbourne, with a focus on risk environments and the implications for prevention.
Here Amy discusses how Australia has many drinking cultures, and the effect of the sober curious movement.

So, can you tell us what inspired your research?

A lot of my research has focussed on drinking practices and particularly heavy drinking practices. My colleague and I, Dr Michael Livingston; noticed a trend about 7 or 8 years ago in epidemiological data that indicated that adolescents particularly, but also young adults had been drinking less progressively since about the early 2000s and that trend was getting steeper. And it is still ongoing today it hasn’t plateaued at all.  This is happening around the world.

We were wondering about things like changes in leisure time, such as more time on digital technology meaning people are less likely to be out drinking with friends, we wondered about changes in school-based education and parenting, we’re coming to the end of a range of studies. What we’ve found is there have been significant changes in family relationships, that is young people stay at home for longer, parents are having less children, parents are changing their parenting style, they’re surveilling their children more in terms of keeping in touch with them when they’re out of the house.

So parenting is definitely one of the strongest factors, but more generally we’ve found that young people are changing the way they “do” young adulthood now. So alcohol is less cool, but instead they’re focussing on the future, doing well at school, doing well at university, making money because it’s a competitive job market.

Young people are worried about their future and alcohol is one of those things that might put them behind the other kids or the people they’re competing with for jobs and economic security. They’re also more worried about things like climate change and equality and social issues. They’re a more mature generation in some senses, but they’re also staying at home for longer which may mean they start drinking heavily at a later age. It used to be around 18 that people would start drinking heavily. Perhaps all we’re seeing is a shift towards people starting to drink heavily in their mid-twenties. We need to do a bit more research.


Australia has a stereotype for heavy drinking culture, do you feel that this is true?

I think quite often there’s this Australian drinking culture that’s talked about. Maybe that was the case at some point.  I don’t like homogenising an entire nation in terms of drinking culture because when we look at the data, there are light drinkers, there are heavy drinkers there are people who drink when they go to the football there are people who don’t.

I have an issue with the term “drinking culture” as applying to a whole nation. There are so many factors and I think the idea of a national drinking culture, we can put to bed now.


What are the greater impacts and implications of people choosing to drink less?

At a basic public health level earlier alcohol consumption is associated with heavier later alcohol consumption. So, we’re expecting to see less people become heavy drinkers only because we know those patterns from previous epidemiological data. So that could have some long-term benefits in reduced burdens on the health-care system. Because most of the harms from alcohol come from the less reported problems such as liver problems such as cirrhosis and heart problems. The acute harms from alcohol and young people tend to get more press, but it’s really a very small proportion of alcohol related harm.

The other really interesting thing I’m noticing is these sober curious movements popping up everywhere where young people are pursuing alternate lifestyle activities such as physical activity and healthier lifestyle options.

And the other thing we won’t see for a while is the impact on brain function and concentration and those sorts of things. We’ll have to wait and see, I guess.

What’s your takeaway message?

I think not always believing the hype, young people get a really bad rap in public discourse and the media. They are making more sensible decisions. There’s better education out there so people are able to take that education, think about how it affects them and act accordingly.

Alcohol is pleasurable and has many social benefits for people when consumed in moderation, so some young people are reporting decreases in drug use and alcohol use, they are also reporting being less happy than previous generations.

There’s a lot of nuance as well. We’ve got to remember that alcohol in small amounts is not that harmful, and getting together with your friends is really important.

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