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Alcohol abstinence campaigns may do more harm than good

Little evidence that Dry January campaigns are effective

Adrian O'Dowd

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Campaigns encouraging people to stop drinking alcohol for a month show little evidence of working and may actually do more harm than good, claims an expert writing in a debate* published online today in The BMJ.

The other participant in the debate, however, said such campaigns were likely to help people at least reflect on drinking and were badly needed given rising consumption of alcohol over recent decades.

The current Dry January campaign in England and Wales, now in its fourth year and run by charity Alcohol Concern, estimates that last year more than two million people reduced their alcohol drinking for January.

However, in the debate, Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health at the Department of Health Sciences at York University wrote: “Popular doesn’t necessarily mean effective. Unfortunately, this type of campaign has had no rigorous evaluation.”

It was unclear who Dry January was targeting, he said, adding: “Because participants select themselves it could attract the people at lowest risk from health problems related to alcohol.

“Because they consume less alcohol they are also likely to find a month of abstinence relatively easy. The campaign should offer a range of advice and more carefully tailor these messages to match the individual’s use of alcohol.”

Dry January also risked sending out an “all or nothing” message about alcohol and could be adding to the confusion that existed in communicating messages about alcohol, he warned.

There was also the risk that by encouraging people to refrain from alcohol consumption for 31 days, they might then return to hazardous levels of drinking for the rest of the year.

“In sum, parched of evidence Dry January could have unintended consequences which would do more harm than good,” he concluded.

Ian Gilmore, honorary professor at Liverpool University and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, argued the opposite position in the debate, saying that campaigns like Dry January were likely to help people at least reflect on their drinking.

In the UK, the per capita consumption of alcohol has doubled over the past 40 years, he said, and the nation had 1.5 million heavily dependent drinkers.

“So what could possibly be wrong with encouraging and supporting the estimated two million or so adults who decide on Dry January to take a month off the booze and have time to reflect on their drinking?” he wrote.

Professor Gilmore pointed to an independent evaluation of 2015’s Dry January by Public Health England (PHE), which showed that 67% of participants said they had had a sustained drop in their drinking six months on.

An earlier evaluation by the University of Sussex found that 62% of participants said they slept better and had more energy, and 49% said they lost weight.

Professor Gilmore said: “Evaluations indicate that campaigns like Dry January are being used more as a way of people examining their relationship with alcohol and making longer-term changes.

“Until we know of something better, let’s support growing grassroots movements like Dry January and Dry July in Australia and take a month off,” he concluded.

* Ian Hamilton, Ian Gilmore. Could campaigns like Dry January do more harm than good? BMJ 2016;352:i143. doi: 10.1136/bmj.i143

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