As we wipe our bleary eyes, look around us in confusion and wonder where the hell our Christmas went, some of us may feel the pressures of the new year looming. Christmas is a time of great indulgence, and many of us may feel that employing a healthier mind-set at the beginning of the year is just what we need to kick-start a successful 2019.
One of the most popular ways to do this is to abstain from alcohol during the month of January. Back in 2012, the Alcohol Change UK charity launched an official Dry January campaign to encourange the nation to cut out alcohol for the first month of the year. As the years roll by, scientists have begun to gather data on the effectiveness of this campaign, and how much difference it really makes.
Dr. Richard de Visser is a leading researcher in this field. He has conducted several studies in the area already, with more data to be published this year. If any of you attended the European Health Psychology Society conference in Galway back in August 2018, you will have already seen some of this data.
We’ll cut right to the chase – signing up for Dry January on the official campaign website has a noticable and marked positive effect on your alcohol consumption, and this effect is maintained six months later.
That may be all you need to sign up (I know it’s already 8th January but it’s not too late!). If you want a little more meat on the proverbial research bone, we’ve summarised two studies below which explain exactly what has been found.
In 2016 de Visser published the first large-scale longitudinal study of voluntary abstinance from alcohol in Health Psychology.
857 British adults who participated in Alcohol Change UK’s Dry January campaign were assessed at baseline, and again at one- and six-months following the beginning of the challenge.
The baseline questionnaire was the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), a ten-item assessment which aims to address three domains of alcohol use: consumption frequency and volume, dependence, and alcohol-related problems.
Participants were also assessed on Drink Refusal Self-Efficacy (DRSE) through a nine-item scale. They were asked to “Please use the scale below to indicate how easy it would be for you to refuse alcohol in each situation”, before being presented with three-item subscales which assessed a discrete area of DRSE; social pressure, emotional relief and opportunistic drinking.
Further information was also ascertained regarding the presence of a Dry January companion, fundraising and a plan to stop drinking.
DRSE evaluations were repeated at the one- and six-month follow-up assessments, and during the latter assessment the AUDIT questionnaire was also repeated.
Results showed that 64% of participants completed Dry January successfully, i.e. without consuming an alcoholic beverage. At baseline, these participants had lower AUDIT scales, and significantly greater social and emotional DRSE. As expected, these data suggest that the less alcohol you consume in your daily life, and the better your resiliance to drinking alcohol, the easier it is to complete Dry January,
The data from the follow-up questionnaires have revealed that successful completion of Dry January was significantly associated with increases in self-efficacy regarding drink-refusal, in social, emotional and opportunistic contexts at the one-month follow-up.
Results from the six-month follow-up assessment show a lasting effect; there was a reduction in drinking days per week, drinks per drinking day and frequency of drunkeness. Surprisingly, even taking part but failing to complete the entire challenge still has benefits – though smaller, these same effects were present. Nevertheless opportunistic self-efficacy did not improve in this subset of the study population and these participants were also more likely to report an increase in the frequency of drunkeness at the six-month follow-up assessment (11% of the whole study population).
One unexpected finding is that neither completing Dry January with a friend, nor fundraising, significantly predicted successful completion of the challenge.
Taken together, this study indicates that completing Dry January can have a lasting positive impact on drinking behaviour. What is missing from this 2016 study is a control comparison, but de Visser has resolved this with his 2017 paper.
In 2017, de Visser ran a second study, this time looking into the social ‘diffiusion’ of Dry January as a concept and practice, as well as the benefits of registering for the challenge as a mechanism for reducing alcohol consumption. This study was published in The European Journal for Public Health.
Four methods of data collection were utilised in this study:
- A review of the number of registrations for Dry January between 2013 and 2016
- Interviews with adult drinkers in the general population, to assess awareness of and participation in the campaign (interviews were conducted in February of 2015 [N=825] and 2016 [N=874])
- Questionnaires at baseline and follow-up as performed in the 2016 study
- Questionnaires as performed in the 2016 study, but using a control group of drinkers who wanted to change their drinking habits without participating in Dry January
Dry January is certainly becoming more popular, as evidenced by a fifteen-fold increase in sign-ups between 2013 (4000 registrants) and 2016 (nearly 60,000 registrants). Involvement from Public Health England was attributed to trebling the number of sign-ups between 2014 and 2015.
On top of these figures, there are many people who take part in Dry January without actually signing up for the campaign. As revealed in the interviews with the general population, 7% of participants in 2015 and 11% in 2016 were attempting to reduce their alcohol consumption without officially signing up with Alcohol Change UK. Extrapolating these to the general population indicates that approximately 2 million adults try to abstain in January.
What was missing from the 2016 study was a comparison between people using Dry January and those using another method to aid in abstinence. In this study, results from the questionnaires amongst Dry January participants and the control group were able to support the conclusions of the 2016 study, whilst providing some additional insights indicating why Dry January itself may be beneficial.
62% of participants successfully completed Dry January, with 92% reporting that they would attempt the challenge again. This 2017 study delved a little deeper than the previous research into why this might be. It found that 96% of Dry January participants signed up for supportive/encouraging email messages, 71% of whom believe these mesages helped them in reducing alcohol consumption. Simlarly, 57% recieved supportive text messages, with 73% reporting that they were helpful.
In comparing the alcohol-related behaviour of the two groups, it was shown that Dry January participants had significantly lower scores than the control group on the six-month follow-up AUDIT questionnaire regarding alcohol use disorders, and showed increases in their DRSE (self-efficacy) scores for all three sub-categories.
The above evidence indicates that signing up for Dry January, and opting in to supportive communications from the campaign, can be extremely effective in reducing alcohol consumption not only in the short-term, but months later.
To find out more about this research, Dr. de Visser can be contacted on Twitter or via his institution.