Norwegian Researcher Studying Teens Who Don't Drink

Hege Westgaard was 15 years old when she first tasted alcohol. "It was a family dinner party," she says, "and I was given my own glass of red wine, which I hated." She drank it anyway. That's just what you do in Norway, where 94 per cent of people sample a sip of booze before their 19th birthday.

Norwegian Researcher Studying Teens Who Don't Drink

Hege Westgaard was 15 years old when she first tasted alcohol. "It was a family dinner party," she says, "and I was given my own glass of red wine, which I hated." She drank it anyway. That's just what you do in Norway, where 94 per cent of people sample a sip of booze before their 19th birthday. "I - as well as everybody else - drink because everybody else does," Westgaard says. "But like most other scholars, I'd really like this story to be about my research, and not about me."

Fair enough. But considering her expertise - underage drinking - it's only natural to ask whether she has any practical experience in her chosen field of study. "I did drink," she says of her teenage days. "But not much."

These days, when she does crave the odd pint, she heads to a watering hole in St. John's, Nfld., her home for the past four months - and a fitting place for a person who studies teenage alcohol abuse. (According to a recent survey, 36 per cent of Newfoundland students between grades 7 and 12 admitted to being drunk at least once in the 30 days prior to filling out the questionnaire.) To be fair, the province is hardly alone when it comes to kids and cocktails. Take Scotland, for instance, where 43 per cent of 15-year-olds drink at least once a week. Or Germany, where 44 per cent of boys are intoxicated twice a month. In Ontario, the average person tastes their first drink at age 13, and in Alberta, more than half of all Grade 9 students have experimented with alcohol. The stats might differ slightly from region to region, but the trend is undeniably the same. "Young people drink much, much more than they did only 10 years ago," Westgaard says.

The reasons are well documented. Easy access. Dysfunctional families. Peer pressure. Two years ago, for example, Statistics Canada surveyed 4,000 youths between 12 and 15, discovering that those most likely to drink had either bad grades, beer-guzzling friends or nagging parents - or a combination of all three. Westgaard is conducting her own study, but unlike most researchers, she is not particularly interested in why the majority of teenagers drink. She wants to know why the small minority doesn't. "There are stereotypes surrounding the abstinent kids," she says. "They are seen as religious or 'goody-goody.' Boring is a word that is also used."

Granted, some are boring. Or as Westgaard describes them, "the loner who sits in his basement and plays computer games." But that's not the only type, as she can attest. A Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bergen, Westgaard has interviewed dozens of "abstinent" teenagers, hoping to determine - clichés aside - what truly sets them apart from the crowd. Her thesis won't be finished for another year, but one conclusion is starting to emerge: for every sober outcast, there are many more confident, well-adjusted teenagers who simply decide not to drink - regardless of what their friends are doing. "It's kind of cool if you're abstinent and you stand by it and you're proud of it," she says.

Sure, that's easy for a 34-year-old woman to say. She is years removed from life as a teenager, where conformity is priority one. But Westgaard isn't trying to preach by thesis. Her interview subjects do the talking, and their advice could prove to be a valuable users' guide for teens who don't want to drink, but don't want to be excluded, either. "Alcohol has to do with communities, doing something together, sharing a moment," says Westgaard, who spent last semester as an exchange student at MEMORIAL UNIVERSITY. "So you have to have some strategies to not be excluded." Be the designated driver, for instance. And, most importantly, make sure you have a quick and easy answer if someone at the bar starts asking you where your glass is. No thanks. I'm fine. Move on. "The minute you start making apologies, then you are lost," she says. "If you open it up for discussion, you could end up sitting there all night." Talking to a drunk person who insists he's right.

Tim Stockwell, the director of the Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia, recommends even sneakier methods. Pour water in your wine glass. Forget your wallet at home. Buy non-alcoholic beer. "A lot of people just don't care what you're drinking," he says. "You have this thought that you've got to be drinking what everyone else is, but people don't necessarily notice." Especially after a few ryes.

Maclean's January 15, 2007