Dry January – Were 3 million people gasping for a drink on Thursday?

Thursday, 1st February 2018 didn’t come soon enough for some who took up the challenge of not drinking alcohol throughout January. This year at least 3 million people in the UK were predicted to give it a go. There is surprisingly little research on the effects of what is now a global phenomenon. Existing research suggests some short term benefits – weight loss, better sleep and saving money. People report less indigestion, fresher looking skin and feeling better about themselves. It’s great for the liver too. After just a month livers of moderate drinkers were in better shape and insulin resistance predisposing to diabetes fell by just over a quarter. Experts caution, however, that whilst young people’s livers will bounce back quickly it will take longer than a month to return a middle-aged liver exposed to moderate alcohol over 30 to 40 years to good health but dry January is a start.

It appears that benefits accrue most to those who sign up via an app or website and somewhat counterintuitively you even get some benefits if you don’t complete the challenge. There were some downsides — less social interaction was reported in one study, but this helped in saving money. Some people complained of boredom, but most glowed with virtue signalling. 

So does a temporary abstinence from alcohol actually work long term? It depends what we mean by “work”. It is worth looking back at the history of these campaigns. Started in Finland in 1942 as part of their war effort. The trend for short term abstinence campaigns took off in 2008 with Australia’s Dry July. Two UK charities (Alcohol Concern and Cancer UK) launched campaigns in 2013 and the latest country to participate is Belgium. These campaigns are driven by charities that raise money from those taking part in individual and team challenges or buying “Golden Tickets” to have a night off from the dry month. Cancer UK’s Dryathlon has raised more than £17 million since 2013. So they certainly work as money-raising ventures for charities. But is there more to it than money?

Alcohol Concern’s campaign was designed not to raise money but to “change our relationship with alcohol” and to start conversations about drinking. They targeted social media since interactions with people in one’s own social network are more likely to lead to action. Whilst 65,000 people signed up for Dry January last year and a further group of over 25,000 signed up for Dryathlon, around thirty fold more will go it alone this year. If Twitter counts as a conversation then this campaign is certainly working. Internationally there are now over 6 billion hashtag impressions tweets about Dry January from individual Twitter accounts resulting in a visit to the website or Facebook page – rising exponentially since 2015. 

It is the fate of the “go-it-aloners” that is causing some concern. In particular the chance of rebound drinking coupled with the sense that having one month off will mitigate any harmful drinking during the whole of the rest of the year. Even in the highly selected group of people who signed up to the Dry January campaign and took part in a six month follow-up, whilst half reduced their drinking, around 10% increased their intake. Comparing those who wanted to participate in Dry January but did not sign-up on the site, with those who did sign-up; the signers had lower alcohol risk scores at 6 months than the go-it-aloners. They also felt more able to resist alcohol in social, emotional and opportunistic situations whilst the go-it-aloners had no change in willpower. Since there was no control group in this study it is hard to make firm conclusions. It could be the signers would have had these changes anyway since they are a motivated self-selected group. Whereas explicitly making a public pledge has been seen in other behaviour change trials to increase positive outcomes. This makes it reasonable to accept that the act of signing up and receiving advice through the month is helping the change in this case.

So if you don’t want to be gasping for that drink at the end of the month it seems that signing up to campaigns that provide extra support and tips are worth it. Meanwhile these campaigns are leading to other changes in availability and acceptability of not drinking alcohol (see below) and it may be that these cultural changes are what will eventually lead to more controlled drinking throughout the year.

A Global Phenomenon

British drinkers are not alone in giving up alcohol for a month.  Six countries have national campaigns, two of which, Canada and Belgium, were inspired by the UK.  These campaigns are not the whole picture. In Sweden and Norway it is part of the culture to take regular breaks from alcohol – known as “white weeks or months”.  “Liver holidays”, usually of two days a week, are common in Japan. Businesses across the world are starting to respond with alcohol free bars and a wider selection of non-alcoholic drinks in both bars and supermarkets. There is an alcohol free dance venue in Stockholm and even an alcohol free garden in Tokyo. One month sobriety campaigns are here to stay and starting to look like a global phenomenon.

Dr. Hilary Guite is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner image: Alcohol bottles, Klearchos Kapoutsis

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