National Comment Comment

Dry January isn't the solution

Molly Duffy on how a month off alcohol won't solve the UK's drinking problem

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Image Credit: Molli Tyldesley

With many wanting to start the new year right, annually thousands of people plan to undertake ‘Dry January’, a month without drinking any alcohol. Alcohol Change estimated that 7.9 million UK adults will have attempted the challenge this January. With many experiencing health benefits, such as better nights sleep and more energy, the challenge of going alcohol free for January perhaps sets the outlook for a healthier 2022. Following the festive period, where no doubt large amounts of alcohol are consumed, Dry January can be seen to give a clean sheet and make up for the over indulgence that comes with the festivities.

But what does the fact that this is considered to be a challenge, to give up alcohol for 31 days, say about British drinking culture? It is not considered to be any easy accomplishment with many taking to the Dry January app, Twitter, and the Alcohol Change blogs for encouragement and guidance to make the month go just that little bit quicker. The reality of Dry January being a challenge highlights a greater social issue concerning alcohol in the UK.

"Essentially, Dry January contributes to this all or nothing approach and encourages the continued culture of extremism that surrounds alcohol consumption in the UK"

There is such a large drinking culture in Britain as a whole, more so than other European countries such as France and Spain, binge drinking in Britain is a lot more common. Research conducted by the charity behind Dry January, Alcohol Change, have recognised that around a quarter of drinkers in Britain partake in binge drinking – this is defined as being eight units for men and six for women in a single drinking session. It has been recognised that in Britain, the tendency is to drink for the feeling that comes from drinking alcohol, rather than drinking for the taste.

By encouraging people to participate in Dry January, Alcohol Change hopes that it can reduce alcohol consumption for the rest of the year. However, there has been much debate about the success and long lasting impacts of Dry January. Firstly, it has been recognised that it is not the people who are in the problem groups concerning alcohol consumption that participate in the challenge. Ultimately, alcoholics are not likely to be tempted by the Dry January challenge, their problem is much too severe to just give up alcohol for a month and go ‘cold turkey’, thus the people that the challenge should be targeting are not likely to sign up for a month off of alcohol.

Furthermore, the aim behind a month off drinking alcohol is to decrease the amount drunk throughout the rest of the year, however, many reverse these effects immediately by bringing in February with a drink to reward completing the challenge. Essentially, Dry January contributes to this all or nothing approach and encourages the continued culture of extremism that surrounds alcohol consumption in the UK. To appropriately address the social issue of drinking in Britain, alcohol in moderation needs to be promoted rather than just a challenge which only lasts for one month of the year.

Alcohol is such a central part of British society. Even coronavirus lockdowns did not prevent regulars from going down to their local pubs to get their much needed takeaway pint. The drinking of alcohol is very much normalised when really the health risks that surround its consumption are incredibly dangerous and can be life threatening, especially if this culture is maintained for a long period of time. Within society, cigarettes and recreational drugs are considered with somewhat negative connotations, however, alcohol is prevalent in all aspects of social life and therefore the drinking of which is fundamental to British identity. As a result, the negative impacts of alcohol on physical and mental health are much less frequently highlighted.

From a student perspective, university can be surrounded by an intense drinking culture. Alcohol can be such a large factor of socialising with friends. Every day seems like the weekend, and therefore, any night of the week can involve drinking large amounts. Whether it's catching up with friends for a drink, going to a pub quiz or going out clubbing, alcohol is an element of many aspects of being a student.

With unlimited freedoms, binge drinking is common in UK university culture, with 79 percent of students agreeing that drinking is a huge part of the university experience in the 2018 NUS students and alcohol national survey. The extent to which drinking alcohol to excess whilst at university is normalised encourages this binge drinking culture further, NUS finding that 23 percent of students drink two to three nights a week whilst at university.

This is not to say that enjoying a drink every now and again is a bad thing, but the risks of alcohol need to be emphasised more and drinking in moderation rather than binge drinking should be encouraged. Rather than promoting initiatives such as ‘Dry January’ challenging people to a month off alcohol, there should be initiatives that promote a moderate form of drinking and not drinking to get drunk.

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