Dry January - good or bad? View from two experts

Drinkers are unlikely to return to unsafe levels of drinking immediately after taking part in Dry January. Image: Thinkstock
Drinkers are unlikely to return to unsafe levels of drinking immediately after taking part in Dry January. Image: Thinkstock
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AN alcohol-free January can appeal to the health conscious among us following the festive season. We discuss the merits and drawbacks of the custom as thousands of Scots are nearing the halfway point in the yearly challenge.

Last year, over 6,000 Scots took part in the Dryathlon 2015 challenge for Cancer Research UK and raised £605,159 in the process. Yet the real number of participants across the country is certainly even higher, as there’s no requirement to take part in a charity campaign in order to give up alcohol for the whole of the month.

The recommended amount of units of alcohol for both men and women in Scotland have recently been reduced to 14. Image: Jacky Ghossein

The recommended amount of units of alcohol for both men and women in Scotland have recently been reduced to 14. Image: Jacky Ghossein

The fashion for winter abstinence comes as new guidelines from the UK’s Chief Medical Officers indicate that men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, ideally spread over three days over more.

Positive short-term benefits of Dry January

Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS) is a charity group focused on reducing the negative impacts of alcohol across Scotland.

AFS conducts studies with a mind to influencing alcohol policy throughout the country and educating others on the effects of drinking.

Evidence suggests they do keep up that reduction and the social acceptability continues after Dry January

Dr. Niamh Fitzgerald, Lecturer in Alcohol Studies at the University of Stirling

Alison Douglas, Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland said: “Taking part in a campaign like Dry January gives people the perfect opportunity to take a break from alcohol so they can reassess how much they’re drinking.

“Research has indicated that a month off alcohol can lower liver fat, blood glucose and blood cholesterol. Other short term benefits of cutting down or not drinking at all include no hangovers, better sleep, losing weight and saving money.

READ MORE - Potatoes more important to Scots than alcohol

The charity also stresses that those who drink more than the recommended guidelines of 14 units per week are putting themselves at increased risk of breast, bowel and oral cancers, as well as liver disease and mental health problems.

This graphic shows the number of units that common alcoholic drinks provide. Image: Alcohol Focus Scotland

This graphic shows the number of units that common alcoholic drinks provide. Image: Alcohol Focus Scotland

Scottish culture does not support us changing our behaviour

But while Dry January entails obvious health benefits, the wider culture surrounding Scottish drinking must be considered according to Dr. Niamh Fitzgerald, Lecturer in Alcohol Studies at the Institute for Social Marketing, University of Stirling.

Dr. Fitzgerald said: “What we do need to be careful about is that Dry January has its place. It’s an intervention that focuses on individuals changing their own behaviour in an environment that doesn’t particularly support this.

“We have advertising for alcohol products in the cinemas and on the television that can be viewed by under-18s, for example. Women who choose not to drink - whether during Dry January or not - are often assumed to be pregnant, so there are still cultural issues around not drinking.

“Dry January creates a month in the year in which it is socially-acceptable for people to say that they’re not drinking. This is not normally the case in all social circles, with some uncomfortable with saying they’re not drinking without giving a reason.”

Dr. Fitzgerald’s work at the University of Stirling is part of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies (UKCTAS), which examines the harmfulness of the substances.

She recommends that labelling be improved to help people better understand and moderate their alcohol consumption.

“It [Dry January] gives people the experience of being abstinent or reducing consumption - evidence suggests they do keep up that reduction and that social acceptability continues after Dry January”, she added.

Dr. Fitzgerald refers to a University of Sussex study by Reader of Psychology Richard Oliver de Visser.

His December 2015 study into the physiological effects of abstinence during Dry January revealed that “very few people” increased their alcohol consumption after the challenge, as Dry January had created an acceptable social milieu in which people felt confident enough to say they were not drinking.

The findings of Visser’s study suggest that Dry January is not a mere “sticking plaster” for excessive drinking, with only 11 per cent of the 857 British men and women surveyed returning to excessive levels of drinking after the month was complete.