Ten years ago, an organization called Alcohol Change UK launched the Dry January initiative to challenge British society to reduce its alcohol consumption. Deaths from cirrhosis in the UK had tripled between 1960 and 2002. The initiative was a success, getting the government’s endorsement in 2015. Now, this year, it is estimated that more than 8 million people are trying to get through January without drinking a drop of alcohol.
Some studies are optimistic regarding the challenge’s merits. A 2019 survey carried out by the University of Sussex showed that 59% of participants drank less in June than before starting the challenge. At the other extreme, 11% experienced a rebound effect and drank even more than before. This happened mainly among those who had not managed to go the 31 days without drinking. Subjectively, one month without alcohol served to improve quality of life, increase concentration and improve sleep.
Ramón Bataller, head of the hepatology service at Hospital Clínic in Barcelona, Spain, and spokesman for the Spanish Association for the Study of the Liver, believes that this type of campaign has some positive effects – as well as some risks. “On one hand, these online campaigns and the apps for motivation and tracking can help you keep your eyes on the goal,” he says. In addition, “after the time of high consumption that is Christmas, it is a way of doing something that will be beneficial for your health.”
As for the risks, Bataller, who published an article in Nature magazine analyzing the initiative, sees two main issues. Firstly, it can be seen as a ruse that doesn’t lead to long-term change. “You stop for a month, consider yourself clean and return to your usual habits in February,” he explains. “The second problem is that suddenly stopping drinking doesn’t work for people with a serious addiction.” Withdrawal syndrome is very dangerous, he warns; it can even be fatal, and it can make a person sick very quickly. “Let’s not forget that alcohol is one of the most addictive drugs that exist,” he warns.
Iñaki Galán, a researcher at the National Epidemiology Center of the Carlos III Health Institute, points out that “although people have been following this type of campaign, global consumption has not decreased. It is just one more measure, but it’s not magic, and the impact at the population level is low. However, anything that means reducing consumption is good.” For the epidemiologist, an interesting point of this initiative could be that “people realize that when they try to stop drinking for a month it is difficult for them, so they have an addiction component that they didn’t know about.”
As with any lifestyle change, while the initial motivation of taking part in a challenge can be helpful, success depends on an actual understanding of what it is that makes change difficult, as well as a supportive social environment. Regarding the former, Bataller stresses the importance of finding the underlying causes that may be making a person drink. “If you have chronic pain or anxiety and you drink to deal with those problems, you need to treat those causes as well in order to be successful, with behavioral therapies or medications,” he explains.
As much as the individual effort helps, it is very difficult to change a habit like drinking if it is socially normalized. Just like smoking on a plane or in a hospital went from acceptable to outrageous, Galán believes that alcohol consumption has to be denormalized, if habits are to change. He suggests putting a tax on alcohol and increasing prices: “It is difficult, but successes have been achieved, such as the case of smoking.” Galán admits that alcohol is an ingrained part of society, but denies that it is necessary for social relations. “In Muslim countries people don’t consume alcohol, and there’s no problem,” he reflects.
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