Dry January 2022: Did it match the heights of 2021?

Dr Richard Piper | February 2022 | 8 minutes

Dry January is a global phenomenon, but it is often quite misunderstood.

In a series of blogs over the course of 2022 Dr Richard Piper, CEO Alcohol Change UK, is going to be exploring what Dry January is and isn’t, how it works, and bringing you insights and stories, including about its successes and weaknesses. In this first blog he's going to reveal for the first time the level of participation in Dry January 2022.

First though, let’s cover the basics.

Dry January is a long-term behaviour change programme designed by experts in alcohol harm and behaviour change, and aimed at heavy, habitual drinkers: those of us with a habit that we find hard to shift and who know deep down that we’re drinking too much, whether that’s regularly binge drinking or exceeding the low-risk guidelines from the Chief Medical Officer (14 units a week).

Dry January starts with a month-long abstinence challenge with significant support tools: the Try Dry app for accountability and lots of badges, an email coaching programme that is daily during January but continues beyond then, an award-winning blog full of inspiring stories, and a super-supportive online community for peer support. These tools have a strong focus on learning. Staying completely dry is far less important than learning something. See my blog on things we can learn by doing Dry January. The support package continues year-round and tens of thousands of people are supported by Alcohol Change UK from February to December!

The aim of Dry January is to enable people to reset their relationship with alcohol and take control of their drinking. What that relationship looks like long term, and what ‘control’ looks like, is up to participants to decide for themselves. We don’t define a particular drinking level (abstinence, 14 units a week, etc.) for people and we believe this is an essential part of what makes the Dry January programme so successful.

Finally in covering the basics, it’s important to emphasise that people who are trying to go dry on their own during January often believe they are taking part in Dry January, even when they have not joined the programme. While having a go is definitely a great first step, we know that people who take part in the Dry January programme are twice as likely to stay dry during the month as those who try to go it alone. And 67% of Dry January participants will be drinking less after six months, whereas those who’ve tried a month off on their own will, on average, find their drinking is back to where it started. If you want to take control of your drinking, give yourself a treat and the best chance of success by enjoying the full Dry January experience.

So what happened in January 2022?

Well, it’s worth looking back over the last few years.

In January 2019, 75,429 people signed-up for Dry January, mostly through the Try Dry app but a few through our website. These are all global figures, not UK only.

In January 2020, 80,632 people signed-up anew for Dry January and a further 16,423 ‘old’ sign-ups from the previous year used the Try Dry app. That’s 97,025 in total.

In January 2021 we were in the midst of a global pandemic and the UK entered its third full lockdown on 6 January. Perhaps because for nine months many heavy ‘home’ drinkers had been drinking even more, or because pubs and bars were shut, we saw an even bigger leap in new sign-ups to 104,376, plus 25,281 returners, giving a total of 129,657 people taking part.

In January 2022, pubs and bars were open again in England and there was a very understandable feeling that people looking to ‘break loose’ and socialise again. Were many of the people who had been thinking about sorting out their drinking a year ago, now thinking about other things? What we saw was really interesting. 85,742 people signed up for the first time, lower than 2021. But ‘returners’ leapt to 45,524 people, taking the total to 131,266.

Dry January 2022 therefore had the highest participation ever, made up of a big jump in returners which offset a drop in new people signing up. Ultimately we want to see many more people signing up, because we know that there are millions of people struggling with heavy, habitual drinking who could be helped to live a better, healthier, happier, and longer life. But we are really pleased that people are returning, or staying with us, in ever greater numbers. Changing a long-term drinking habit is never a quick fix and for many people it can take two or three attempts at a Dry January before they take plunge and stay with us for the full year-round journey, which is where much of the real change happens. But that’s for my next blog!