To start the first month of 2023, recent trends indicate that America is amidst a generational shakeup with its relationship with alcohol, possibly the biggest in decades. Despite endless articles on becoming “sober curious” recently, this spirited lifestyle shift did not start on January 1st. A little digging shows that a possible drinking downturn has been brewing for quite a while.
🔎 Searching for Suds without the Bud
Without having to pay or conduct any research, there are plenty of free and quick sources from the internet domain that capture what is happening on a baseline level. Here are a few:
📅 Search interest for Dry January grew exponentially in 2023 (Figure 1). The term saw 2.3x search higher than last year, and 3.5x higher than than pre-COVID. If you want to go back even further to when the term started popping up (January 2015), it’s 8.5 times. The question is – will going dry in January transform from a resolution and become a habit?
🛒 While Dry January came on the scene hot and fast, Non-alcoholic beverages quietly increased in popularity the last two years (Figure 2). While search interest grew a modest +4% in 2020, the same term saw +25% and +26% increases YoY in 2021 and 2022. But this wasn’t just a sign of being sober curious – retail sales of NA beverages grew similarly over the same periods (Nielsen).
There is a lot of debate on what the growth potential of NA beverages can be (beer has had much more success than liquor, for instance) – but this increase represents an interesting opportunity from a consumer behavior standpoint. What is the willingness to pay for a mocktail? Is it better to settle for a seltzer or a club soda (which is free)? Can you entice someone to go NA for a night by changing the design or framing of the serving glass or menu? Was O’Doul’s just way ahead of it’s time? Similar to the extensive field and lab research around enticing sustainable and healthy eating habits, there is a lot of opportunity to explore and experiment with here, as well as replicating past studies around reducing alcohol consumption with a more on-the-fence population.
🔬 Beyond the Obvious
There is already a lot of chatter, research, and debate on the impacts of alcohol consumption in regards to an individual health choice – but not as many are articulating the multi-faceted behavioral and demographic dynamics at play. Here’s a few:
💸 1 in 3 Lower Income households reported cutting alcohol as a way to save money due to higher household expenses last month – 10% than Middle Income households and 34% more than High Income Households (Numerator). As households get crafty and frugal, it’s another reason beyond health for those looking to save money.
🏠 Alcoholic consumption surged to cope with the pandemic in the household – hence making it more of a personal-at home activity rather than an external-social one. This has two effects I want to highlight:
- Increased salience (noticeability) of the habit on one’s health
- Disrupted the social influence and pressures around drinking in general.
🌐In contrast to finding fellowship through drinking, many adults (Millennials and Gen X specifically) have found comfort and community with others on how to explore breaking up with the bottle. For example, Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman’s podcast episode on drinking has 2.5 million views in 5 months on Youtube alone, and the r/stopdrinking subreddit has doubled to over 400K in the last 2 years.
💤 But older generations are now just catching up – younger Millennials and Gen Z were already cool with adopting a more sober lifestyle years before the pandemic. Rates of abstinence surged to 28% among U.S. College students in 2018, and those reporting heavy alcohol use was half of what it was 20 years ago (Figure 3)
❓ Will the trend stick?
These few tidbits above highlight that the “drink less” movement is growing quickly – but is also still very much a minority movement and very heterogenous. The differences in reasons for drinking/not drinking vary incredibly by region, income, race, and gender, so these few insights represent the bottom of the barrel.
In addition, there is counterfactual data in retail that shows interest in drinking less does not mean less drinking overall. Recent sales data shows that total alcohol sales still continued to climb in 2022, as we emerged from our social caves the last two years out to bars, breweries, and restaurants.(Bloomberg, Figure 4).
It’s also difficult to imagine many of my fellow neighbors will be watching the beloved Eagles in the Super Bowl at a South Philly sports bar with a $7 mocktail in hand (Go Birds 🦅). Or not trying the latest Hazy IPA release from a cozy local brewery during the harsh winter months up north.
But at the Dry January data from the last 30 days (and also the past two years) show that more and more Americans are experimenting with it, which is a rebellious sign in itself against the age old culture.
Given the trends with younger generations and the hangover effects from COVID, one thing seems certain – personal alcohol consumption and norms around American drinking culture are rapidly evolving, and represents a significant opportunity to explore research and positive impact in the public health and behavioral space in 2023 and beyond.
Cheers to tracking this in the months ahead.