Our charity is 100% behind the notion of individual choice, social inclusion, and healthy alternatives to booze. We are not anti-alcohol and we’re certainly not prohibitionists. Remember, we were founded by myself - a raging alcoholic - so there’s no judgement here.
In fact our core message is that it’s simply #OK2SAYNO. If you can drink in moderation and safely, that’s great. We’re not here to comment on healthy moderate drinkers. That's none of our business. We’re here to raise awareness for our mates who can't do that.
We are also big on advocacy and straight-talk and truth in this complex space.
So: while on the one hand it's remarkable to see the predicted traction of the ‘sober curious’ and ‘AF’ trends hitting Australia - which we acknowledge as progress in a historically limited market - on the other hand there’s a dark and serious undercurrent industry and influencers need to be really clear and transparent about.
This week a colleague recommended that I tune in and listen to a national radio programme discussing the ''AF'' trend. So I did. A noticeably fragile caller and self-proclaimed alcoholic rang in to share she couldn’t wait to ‘go out and try’ some of alcohol-free wine, because she missed it so much (the taste).
My heart literally plummeted and my skin began to crawl when I heard those words.
Honestly I felt sick to my stomach because the fact is, for many recovering / recovered alcoholics - their addicted brains will light up like a Christmas Tree when the smell and taste of booze hits their bloodstream. This can act as a subsequent trigger for the user to want the real thing . And that can of course in turn lead to relapse.
Are there exceptions to this? Yes. I do know of people who've overcome addiction and have safely been able to go on and drink imitation alcohol. As we constantly remind people, there’s ‘’no one size fits all.'' The point is that generally speaking this is an area that needs to be treated with the highest duty of care, caution and consideration.
And I honestly don't see sufficient duty of care in this discussion or space. But the solution is really simple - it just involves being clear, up front, and informing consumers whether you're a supplier or an influencer promoting the product.
Allow me to throw myself under the bus, here, as I do.
When it was me in the final stages of my own descent into alcoholism - I turned to ‘’alcohol free’’ wine and beer thinking that maybe with THIS stuff, I’d be right as rain. Maybe I could fit in amongst my small town while not being the drunk person to get scraped off the floor and gossiped about for weeks afterwards. Wowsers! What a concept, I thought...
... it didn't pan out like that for me. In no time at all after cracking the lid on that ''beery'' tasting bottle of cold goodness I was overcome with an insatiable urge to get my hands on the real thing because, well, an alcoholic like me was NOT ever drinking for the taste. I wanted oblivion - not a healthy, mindful, carefully crafted alternative.
Working on the frontlines and speaking to real people non-stop about this exact shared experience, I assure you this is a danger not limited to me. It’s a horrifyingly common occurrence.
So what I hope with all my heart to see in this ‘trending’ market and industry is simply that clear and transparent disclaimers and full information is given to consumers.
Having trawled through many ‘’AF’’ beer/wine/spirit websites, there are endless references to mindfulness and inclusion, but this critical common-sense caution seems to be consistently missing?
If this rapidly growing industry of suppliers and subsequent influencers are truly going to be all about ‘’mindful drinking’’ may I respectfully, lovingly, and beseechingly suggest on behalf of our most vulnerable loved ones that this basic and essential warning cannot be skimmed over.
Nobody - least of all me - is talking about a Nanny State here. EW - I honestly find that as loathsome an idea as the next person. What we're yarning about here is nothing more complex than clear and transparent access to the full facts, so a consumer can make a fully informed decision.
So here's cheers to you whether you can drink alcohol or you cannot.
Let's just work together to ensure we are truly being mindful.
Shanna Whan is the founder and CEO of national charity Sober in the Country. She was able to overcome her addiction to alcohol without little help or support in 2015 and now works to advocate for the enormous gaps of others fighting for their lives in an overburdened and ineffective rural health care system.