Dry January evaluation 2019

21 December 2019


Dr Richard de Visser


The popularity of Dry January is growing: in 2019 82,000 people registered via the website or mobile phone application, and it is estimated that four million people attempt to have a Dry January without registering via the website. Previous studies of Dry January registrants have indicated that participation is associated with beneficial changes in well-being, confidence in managing temptation or pressure to drink, and actual alcohol intake. These benefits have been found to be greater among people who stay dry during January than among people who have a partially-dry January.

However, previous research has not explored these changes in the general population. In particular, previous studies have shown that many Dry January participants drink less in August than they did before Dry January; but clearly ‘before Dry January’ is December, a month in which people may be drinking more than usual: we do not know whether the drop in drinking from December to August is related to Dry January, or is part of a seasonal variation in the general population.

Second, previous research has not compared the cohort who do the “official” Dry January - signing up to the campaign and receiving the campaign support - with those who undertake an unofficial, unsupported Dry January.

Two key aims of the research reported here, therefore, were 1) to determine whether the beneficial changes observed in previous studies of Dry January participants were unique to that group, and not also observed in people not attempting to stay dry 2) to determine whether the benefits of Dry January are experienced equally by those who do the supported version and the unsupported version (in which case, the fact of going dry for January is the key driver of change), or whether those who sign up receive more benefit (in which case, the support is an essential element in the change process).

The research involved surveys of Dry January registrants and parallel surveys of the general population. Self-completed online questionnaires were completed by a total sample of 7148 people in late December 2018 and early January 2019 (at the start of Dry January), 3564 people at the end of Dry January (1-month follow-up), and 2741 people 6 months after the end of Dry January (6-month follow-up). The general population sample contained a sub-sample of those who had undertaken their own, unsupported Dry January, as well as those who had not.

Key findings are summarised below, framed as responses to the main evaluation questions.

Key findings

Why do people do Dry January? What might motivate more to become or remain involved? Participants’ most commonly cited reasons for taking part in Dry January were to have a break from alcohol, to improve health, and to prove something to themselves. Fundraising was the least important reason for taking part, and fundraising was not related to saying dry during January. Among people undertaking an “unofficial” Dry January, the two most commonly cited reasons for not registering indicated that people felt that they could, take on the challenge unaided. Among people who did not want to try to have a Dry January, the most common reasons reflected people’s belief that there was no need to change their drinking behaviour: “I do not have a problem with my drinking” and “I am not interested in changing my alcohol use”.

How positive is the user experience of the campaign?
The sources of support that were most commonly used and perceived as most useful were the website, supportive emails, and the app. Very few participants used support from sources outside of Dry January.

What are the key causal factors behind participants experiencing a successful Dry January?
and What are the effects of taking part? Two-thirds (64%) of people who tried to stay dry during January were successful in doing so. Staying completely dry during January was predicted by: female gender; higher education; higher income; better physical health at baseline; starting Dry January more concerned about the health effects of their drinking; and having a higher AUDIT-C score at baseline. Among people who were completely dry, 59% reported reduced alcohol intake, 49% reported increased control over their drinking, and 43% reported better mental well-being, and 32% reported better physical health at 6-month follow-up.

Although not drinking at all during Dry January may seem the most obvious way to measure success, it is also important to note that another important marker of success is whether participants feel more in control of their drinking. It is therefore important to note that the vast majority of people who tried not to drink during January reported having more control over their drinking in the one-month follow-up questionnaire: 81% of those who were abstinent in January felt more in control, and 67% of those who partially abstinent felt more in control. People were also more likely to experience increases in control if they had registered for Dry January, if in the baseline questionnaire they reported drinking more, having lower DRSE, and feeling more concerned about their drinking.

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