Dry January is not a solution. It is part of the problem

Abstinence from alcohol ultimately just perpetuates the very cycle drinkers are seeking to break

January 13, 2021
 SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images
SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

When the third national lockdown was announced, a rare consensus broke out on social media: Dry January had already been cancelled. Only a week before, it had been announced that more people were going to give up booze in the first month of the year than ever before. According to Alcohol Change UK, 6.5m people were jumping on the temporary bandwagon—one in five of all adult drinkers. Now, two weeks into the month, it seems many have jumped off again. 

The charity soon took to social media itself, announcing: “#DryJanuary is not cancelled. Cope with uncomfortable emotions without a drink.” The message is a powerful one. Many of us use alcohol to avoid difficult feelings. But Dry January is not the solution. In fact, it is part of the problem. 

Certainly, the scale and nature of the nation’s drink problem can appear alarming. Alcohol Change UK cites research suggesting that alcohol misuse is the biggest contributor to death, ill-health and disability among 15-49 year olds, and the fifth biggest across all ages. The Office for National Statistics recorded 7,551 deaths from diseases directly caused by alcohol misuse in 2018.

However, it is less clear what constitutes dangerous drinking. Alcohol Change UK says that “24 per cent of adults in England and Scotland regularly drink over the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guideline,” but these limits seem very conservative. When statistician David Spiegelhalter looked at the data, he concluded that it showed only “a very low level of harm in drinkers drinking just more than the UK guidelines.” 

Perhaps more significant than the amount we drink is how we drink it. Around a quarter of drinkers in Great Britain go on alcohol binges. The definition is over eight units of alcohol for men and six for women, a threshold reached when a couple gets halfway through their second bottle of wine. This tendency to drink a lot in one sitting is what distinguishes the UK from countries like France and Spain which have similar overall levels of consumption. Too often we reach for the bottle not because we think it would enhance dinner but because we feel we need it to loosen up or self-medicate. 

This is the real nature of Britain’s drink problem. Bingeing on alcohol for its effects, not its flavour, is what deprives people of a good night’s sleep, causes killer hangovers—and leads to more alcohol-related harms, from emotional bust-ups to physical fights and serious accidents. 

The root of the problem is a binge-purge mentality in which we indulge a physical pleasure to excess and then make ourselves pay some kind of penitential price. This seems typical in historically protestant-majority countries.  

The mindset is deep-rooted and implicit, and it (mis)informs much of our thinking. The appeal to many conservatives of austerity, for example, seems connected with a moral sense that we need to atone for our previously profligate ways, even though the economic case against austerity was always clear. This will become a problem again if Rishi Sunak gets his opportunity to “rebalance the books” after the pandemic-induced government spending spree. 

It could even have been a factor in the lax behaviour during the summer lull of the pandemic. Having been so “good” and followed lockdown guidelines, many people seemed to think they had earned the right to let themselves off the leash and relax in close proximity with others.  

Dry January merely replicates the source of the problem it is supposed to be solving. It reinforces the idea that we need to go through a period of complete abstention to make up for our festive excesses. It perpetuates the binge-purge cycle rather than short-circuits it. The solution is not to refrain from enjoyment but to avoid excessive indulgence in the first place. Avoid a sodden December and your January can be moist. 

Advocates of Dry January say that it is not about earning credit to go crazy again afterwards. Rather it is an opportunity to reset. But if you want to change your habits, it is better to start a routine you can sustain, such as limiting drinking days and quantities, rather than going through a one-off challenge in which no new habits are learned.  

There is a cautionary lesson in all this for policy makers. Successive governments have made reducing alcohol consumption a public health priority, but they have floundered where it comes to devising effective policies. Scotland’s minimum unit pricing does seem to have reduced off-sales of alcohol, although it is not clear whether it has reduced consumption overall. But it does nothing to challenge harmful patterns of drinking. 

However, there are measures we could take to challenge the binge-purge mentality. At the moment there are numerous incentives for drinkers to go large and drink fast. When we return from lockdown we’ll find happy hours encouraging an early start to the night, double shots often cheaper per unit than singles, and four packs that are less than four times the cost of single cans. Wine drinkers are particular targets. Large glasses are almost always better value than smaller ones, while “buy two glasses and get the rest of the bottle free” promotions are commonplace. 

The answer to this is simple. Alcohol should always be sold at the same pro-rata price. A 250ml glass of wine should cost twice as much as a 125ml one. No incentives should be given to drink more or sooner, in shops or in bars and restaurants. Unlike minimum unit pricing this does not disproportionately harm the poor, nor is it excessively paternalistic. It allows us to sell and buy cheap booze as we like, it just doesn’t allow anyone to design the choice environment in such a way as to encourage us to drink more than we want. 

Of course I accept that Dry January can work for some people. But we need to learn that virtue is not to be found in abstinence but in balance. This isn't dull “moderation” but mastery of the art of maximising pleasure.