I’ve just turned 40. Cue a predictable period of introspection and various optimistic promises to myself to finally get fit, read more, see more of my friends and generally be better at life. The fact this has happened in January only magnifies the effect: we’re talking New Year’s Resolutions ++.

One thing I haven’t pledged to do is give up alcohol – partly because that’s one sure-fire way to ruin a good birthday celebration. And partly because I generally don’t believe in giving up things that I like doing.

Yet I feel like I’m in the minority among people I know. Almost everyone I work with is attempting some version of Dry January – and apparently 4 million people took part in 2017 and 2018. It’s become quite the fashion.

 

Does Dry January work?

There is debate about the effectiveness of the campaign in terms of its ability to sustain meaningful behaviour change. Dr Richard de Visser from The University of Sussex has evaluated the campaign since it was first launched in 2013 by Alcohol Concern (now Alcohol Change UK). His latest study, based on 800 people who participated in Dry January in 2018, showed that, on average, people were still drinking less by August.

There are other academics that question the robustness of these findings – highlighting the lack of a control group and the risk of reliance on self-reported data (there’s a chasm between the amount people say they drink and the amount of alcohol actually sold). You also have to wonder how much participating in the study affected the participants’ behaviour.

Others have questioned whether the campaign targets the ‘wrong kind’ of drinkers: people who don’t really have much of a problem to start with, as opposed to those drinking at the riskiest levels.

 

Behavioural theory behind the campaign

Whether it works or not, it’s clear that the idea of Dry January has captured the public’s imagination and that Alcohol Change UK has done a lot right in bringing this annual abstinence festival to the masses.

Looking at this through the lens of the BIT’s EAST framework, Dry January appears to overcome the biggest hurdle in any behaviour change campaign – making it easy (the E in EAST) – largely by making it social and timely (the S and T in EAST).

The campaign temporarily turns social norms on their head at a time of year when people are receptive to such change. It’s far easier for people to say to friends and colleagues ‘Sorry I can’t, I’m doing Dry January’, than it is to refuse a drink at any other time of year, when, in many people’s social circles, there is so much social expectation to imbibe. Giving something up is much easier when everyone else is doing it too.

Of course, people have been cutting back on the booze in January for far longer than the last six years, so the campaign was already going with the grain. But Dry January gave this behaviour a label and has gradually made it socially acceptable – possibly even socially desirable – to be seen to be giving it a go.

The campaign’s marketing goes after the other letter in EAST, the A (making it attractive), by highlighting the various benefits of cutting back: ‘sign up, save money, feel great’ is the tagline. And on the face of it, Dr de Visser’s study appears to back these claims up: 88% of participants in 2018 reported saving money, 71% claimed better sleep, 67% more energy and 58% say they lost weight.

 

Lasting change?

So I applaud the campaign for everything it has achieved. Yet in spite of all this, I can’t shrug off a concern that, for most who drink at harmful or hazardous levels, sustaining any meaningful population-level reduction in alcohol intake won’t be achieved through a one-off abstinence binge. It feels too much like dieting, which we all know doesn’t work.

It’s clear it helps some people ‘reset’ their relationship with alcohol – and that this provides a platform for some to cut back long term. But until social norms shift for the other 11 months of the year, the behavioural barriers remain stacked against the majority of drinkers who want to change, but find it too hard to do so. As one friend attempting Dry January put it to me, ‘what on Earth are you meant to do instead?’

Which is why Public Health England’s money is banked on Drink Free Days as the sustainable solution to the nation’s problem with drink. And maybe the real magic will happen when these two campaigns integrate to provide an onward ‘customer journey’ for those hazily staggering out of the Dry January club come February 1.