Reducing alcohol harm: where does Dry January fit in?

Maddy Lawson | January 2019 | 8 minutes

Alcohol Change UK's mission is to end the serious harm caused by alcohol; where does Dry January fit in with that?

Some people say that Dry January is too extreme, meaning it can’t make a real, long-term impact. Spoiler alert: that’s not true (find out why here).

But the flipside of that criticism is that Dry January is too easy. Dry January, some say, is only taken up by moderate drinkers who have little to lose, but also little to gain. This year, some have said that Dry January does too little to help, and is therefore distracting attention from, people who drink very heavily and from the deepening crisis facing the alcohol treatment sector.

The drastic cuts to alcohol treatment budgets – and the myriad other issues facing the sector – are unacceptable and are putting lives at risk. Challenging these cuts and working with the Government, local authorities and the treatment sector to ensure that every person, and their family members, have access to high-quality support when they need it is why Alcohol Change UK exists. In 2018 we published a report calling attention to the crisis in the alcohol treatment sector. We campaigned throughout the year for a national alcohol strategy and alcohol treatment levy to go some way towards addressing the challenges faced. In 2019, the work continues.

The drastic cuts to alcohol treatment budgets – and the myriad other issues facing the sector – are unacceptable and are putting lives at risk.

Far from distracting attention, Dry January complements this work. It’s not a case of either/or, but both/and.

While Dry January isn’t suitable for people at the highest risk of severe harm and death as a result of alcohol, it has been shown to be highly effective at helping heavy drinkers to cut down long term. In fact, the research to date shows that Dry January is more effective for heavier drinkers than moderate drinkers. This is true even for those who do not make it through the whole month without drinking.

This means that hundreds of thousands of people each year are at reduced risk as a result of Dry January, improving lives and resulting in less pressure on our overburdened alcohol treatment services. We absolutely need more investment in our treatment services, but we also need to help people further upstream, so that fewer people need those services in the first place. Early interventions like Dry January are far cheaper than alcohol treatment, making Dry January cost effective if it goes on to help even a handful of people who would otherwise go on to need more intensive support.

It’s not a case of either/or, but both/and.

Millions more lower-risk drinkers also change their relationship with alcohol to drink more healthily and happily through Dry January. These people aren’t at serious risk of harm – but that doesn’t mean that they don’t stand to gain a great deal from cutting down their drinking. After all, they wouldn’t take on Dry January if they didn’t think their lives could change for the better. (As for the risk that this group will abstain but binge when the month is over, you can read this blog.)

But Dry January does even more than that. When one in ten of us stops drinking for a month, it changes the conversation. It’s one month each year when the UK talks openly about alcohol.

Dry January normalises not drinking, normalises taking time to address our drinking, rather than allowing it to be an unexamined and at times harmful part of the background. Dry January is, slowly, helping to challenge the significant stigma surrounding alcohol problems, and encouraging more people to seek the support they need. This ability and willingness of individuals to seek support is just as vital as the funding of the services that are there to offer support.

Thousands die each year as a result of alcohol. It’s a huge and complex problem. Dry January is just one piece of the jigsaw of measures needed to change this – but we think it’s a vital one.

You can get a whole lot more from Dry January with a bit of support. Sign up for a daily support email which will help guide you through the month, or for Try Dry: the Dry January app.

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