Jane Bradley: It happened quickly, not drinking has become acceptable

Where once it was socially perverse to abstain from drinking, it is now becoming a norm, as Jane Bradley discovers.

A swift one after work  or even during it  used to be automatically an alcoholic drink but increasingly a pint or a cocktail is being replaced by a lemonade, and more often than not, that is by choice.

It was a cold and rainy night. I was coming from home, so there were no colleagues with whom to share a taxi. I was tired after a long week and knew I wasn’t planning a late night.

So I drove. I felt like a bit of a loser, as I headed out of the door grasping my car keys for Friday night after-work drinks.

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But on arriving at the pub, I found I wasn’t alone in my sobriety.

Out of around ten of us – all members of that supposedly hard-drinking profession of journalism – four were not drinking alcohol.

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Those of you who watched the documentary on The Scotsman’s 200th birthday earlier this year may be surprised. It seems that broadcaster Andrew Marr’s memories from his time as a cub reporter of a historic Scotsman newsroom soaked in beer, where reporters downed dozens of lunchtime pints before returning to work to file legible and and coherent copy, are consigned to the same scrapheap as hot metal presses.

One of my colleagues is a life-long tee-totaller and has been attending work drinks and leaving dos for decades on nothing more than orange juice without so much as a second thought.

The other three of us do sometimes drink alcohol, but had opted to drive that night, favouring convenience over the chance to sink a few pints.

It is something which is happening more often, but is a trend which would have been socially unacceptable in journalism not long ago.

Thinking back, perhaps Marr’s recent recollections of The Scotsman reporters’s drinking habits, while although not quite so extreme as when he was starting out, weren’t ridiculous in the fairly recent past.

At the beginning of my career, a colleague sleeping off a lunchtime drinking session with a quick afternoon cat nap in the toilets was not unheard of – while during my time as a business editor in the pre-recession days, booze was free-flowing at lunchtime meetings with banks and financial services firms.

A few years ago, had I announced I wasn’t drinking on a night out, I would have had knowing looks and furtive glances at my stomach – or even, on one memorable occasion, a straight question from a male colleague who most definitely was drinking that night: “You on the lemonade tonight, Bradders – what’s going on, are you up the duff?”

Now, I don’t think anyone would bat an eyelid if I – or anyone else – was off the booze one night. Not drinking has become acceptable. In some circles, welcome, even. Alcohol has become the new smoking – turning rapidly into a naughty vice which is beginning to become just slightly less socially acceptable.

It has happened so quickly.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a column about how people find it difficult to reconcile pubs with non-alcoholic drinks, preferring to stay home alone, rather than visit a hostelry if they were unable to partake in an alcoholic beverage.

But now, it seems, the worm has turned.

A Mintel report out earlier this month found that a third of people have reduced or limited their alcohol intake over the past 12 months.

One in five adults now apparently do not drink alcohol at all, including 22 per cent of women and 19 per cent of men.

Some of these are short-term cut backs – Dry January or another month- or few weeks-long – health kick before an ultra marathon or some such extreme exercise goal.

Others are for long-term health reasons: their doctor has suggested they cut down to reduce blood pressure or improve liver function; or simply, that people find they cannot drink in moderation, so would rather give it up entirely.

Most people, the Mintel survey found, would rather opt for soft drinks over low-alcohol beers or wines, suggesting that fewer people are concerned by their decision not to drink.

The figures correlate with the official numbers released by the World Health Organisation for 2014, which showed that 15 per cent of the UK population has always abstained from drink. Interestingly, a further 16 per cent said they had previously drunk alcohol, but had abstained over the previous year.

It wasn’t long ago that the tide was beginning to turn against smoking. The only acceptable answer for “do you mind if I smoke in here?” was (an often grudging) no. Now, it would be a definite yes for most people and society would expect that.

And while alcohol doesn’t have the passive effects of smoke, the health concerns are growing in a similar way.

Scottish pubs and bars, shutting at a rate of two a week after being hit by the smoking ban, recession and drink driving laws, are battling to keep up, increasing food offerings and the range of soft drinks on offer.

Sadly for them, but perhaps positively for the NHS and the quality of afternoon journalism, the non-drinking trend is only going to continue. And if drinking establishments are to survive the change, they will have to come up with increasingly innovative ways to evolve.