Dry January: Alcohol Abstinence Could 'Do More Harm Than Good', Says Health Expert

Why Dry January Could 'Do More Harm Than Good'

A health expert has argued that Dry January might actually do "more harm than good" and said that, despite it's popularity, "it doesn't necessarily mean it's effective".

Ian Hamilton, a lecturer at York University, said that alcohol abstinence campaigns like Dry January might mean well, but they could also have unintended consequences.

He believes people could be encouraged to view their 31 days of abstinence as an excuse to return to hazardous levels of consumption once February hits.

He also said that it is unclear which age group the campaign is specifically targeting, which "risks the message of not being heard".

Discussing his concerns in the British Medical Journal, Hamilton said he was concerned by the lack of evidence that such campaigns work.

He also said that while the campaign is popular among people - more than two million people cut down their drinking in January last year, according to the Dry January campaign led by Alcohol Concern - it doesn't necessarily make it effective.

Hamilton continued his argument by saying that this type of campaign "has had no rigorous evaluation".

He said it is not clear who Dry January is targeting and this "risks the message of not being heard".

For example, trying to communicate a message about alcohol to the over 65s at the same time as the under 25s might not work, “as the way these groups use alcohol is likely to be different".

Additionally, he said that many people can be "economical with the truth" when it comes to how much they drink.

"If people aren’t honest with themselves about their drinking, how can Dry January help?" he added.

Furthering his argument, he said that campaigns like Dry January risk sending out an "all or nothing" message about alcohol, and could be adding to the confusion we know exists in communicating messages about alcohol.

For example, in public health advice about safe levels of alcohol consumption using recommended maximum daily or weekly units of alcohol.

He added that people might return to "hazardous levels of consumption" after Dry January, as they viewed their 31 days of abstinence as permission to drink to excess from then on.

Hamilton also pointed out that, for some heavy drinkers, abrupt abstention from alcohol can induce serious symptoms such as seizures.

"In sum... Dry January could have unintended consequences which would do more harm than good," he concluded.

In contrast, Ian Gilmore, honorary professor at Liverpool University, said that such campaigns are likely to help people at least reflect on their drinking.

He said that in the UK, our per capita consumption of alcohol has doubled over 40 years, and we have 1.5 million heavily dependent drinkers in this country.

With this in mind, he believes it is good to encourage and support those estimated two million adults who have decided to take a month off booze and reflect on their drinking.

He said an independent evaluation of 2015’s Dry January by Public Health England showed that 67% of participants said they had maintained a sustained drop in their drinking six months on.

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Meanwhile research from the University of Sussex found that 79% of participants said they saved money, 62% said they slept better and had more energy, and 49% said they lost weight.

Gilmore said it should be stressed that the campaign is aimed at social not dependent drinkers.

"But evaluations indicate that campaigns like Dry January are being used more as a way of people examining their relationship with alcohol and making longer term changes," he explained.

Release of the UK chief medical officers’ guidelines on drinking is timely, he added, with their emphasis on having several alcohol-free days each week. This, he believes, should be a focus for further research.

But until we know of something better, "let’s support growing grass-roots movements like Dry January... and take a month off".

What do you think of Dry January? Let us know in the comments below.

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