January 4, 2024

Friends toasting glasses with red wine in wedding

The New Year rings in new goals, expectations and beginnings—which for some includes a temporary break from drinking alcohol.

Dry January—a month-long feat to be sober—officially launched as a campaign in 2013 under the organization Alcohol Change UK, though the practice has roots that extend as far back as 1942, when Finland had their own “Sober January” to help in the war against the Soviet Union.

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Alcohol Change UK is a charity that focuses on reducing the harm caused by alcohol in society.

In 2023, at least 175,000 people signed up to participate in Dry January on the Alcohol Change UK website. That same year, 15% of U.S. adults, which amounts to more than 260 million Americans, pledged to practice Dry January.  

The campaign has flourished during a period of increased alcohol consumption, with one study showing that drinking has increased by 70% between 1990 and 2017. The World Health Organization said that no level of alcohol consumption is good for our health, calling alcohol a Group 1 carcinogen, the highest risk group, alongside includes asbestos, radiation and tobacco.

Excessive drinking has also been proven to be one of the leading causes of preventable death in the U.S., per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“Addiction sneaks up on you,” UC Davis Health substance abuse counselor Tommie Trevino said in a report. “When someone starts questioning whether they have a problem, I suggest they abstain for 30 days. I say, ‘If you can’t stop for 30 days, why not?’ Then we may need to reevaluate the person’s relationship with alcohol.”

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The history of Dry January 

The decision to start off the month abstaining from alcohol stems back to the Finnish government’s decision to reduce their alcohol intake to save on more resources in 1942, during a war effort against the Soviet Union after the Finns joined Germany in their fight. But the modern iteration of this challenge was started by Alcohol Change UK. The term Dry January was eventually trademarked by Alcohol Change UK/Alcohol Research UK.

The organization says the idea for Dry January came from Emily Robinson, a young woman who gave up drinking for a month in January 2011 to better prepare for her first half marathon. The following year, Robinson joined Alcohol Change UK and began to share her experience abstaining from alcohol, leading Dry January to officially become a campaign in 2013. The initiative peaked in 2022, according to market research firm Morning Consult, after the pandemic saw elevated alcoholic intake—about 1 in 4 people drank more than usual, the National Institutes of Health reports.

Read more: What Prohibition Can Teach Us About Drug and Alcohol Policy Today

Alcohol Change UK says Dry January is not about “hiding away for a month” or avoiding socializing for 31 days. “The whole point of a month off is that you’ll have a test at some point, an event or meal out and the trick is, can you turn that drink down?” they wrote.

While Dry January only lasts a month, research shows that a reprieve from alcohol can help moderate to heavy drinkers see immediate benefits including weight loss, better diet, and a reduction in liver fat and blood sugar. A University of Sussex survey found that 71% of people that took part in Dry January say they slept better, nearly the same amount said they had more energy. Participating may also be especially beneficial to women, who can suffer greater health and safety risks when they drink because their bodies take longer to break alcohol down, according to a UC Davis health report

Research shows that reduced intake of alcohol for moderate and heavy drinkers has broader health benefits, like better health and liver health. Six months after adults completed Dry January, participants reported drinking an average of one day less per week, according to a 2016 study published in a journal of the American Psychological Association.

There are also financial benefits; 88% of participants in a University of Sussex survey conducted in 2018 say they saved money while not drinking.

Read more: How to Be a Healthier Drinker

Researchers found that short-term behavior modifications like Dry January, can encourage people to be more conscious about how much alcohol they consume, saying it could be beneficial. However, a 2021 study indicated that abstinence from alcohol for a month does not reduce overall alcohol consumption for casual drinkers. Instead, research found that casual drinkers felt that they could drink in excess during other periods of the year because of their participation in Dry January. 

“Even with full information regarding the cancer harms of drinking, many will certainly continue to imbibe. Nevertheless, increased awareness could result in people making more informed decisions about their alcohol consumption,” researchers from the National Cancer Institute said in commentary published in the American Association for Cancer Research Journal.

The original version of this story misstated the organization that conducted a 2016 study. The study was published in a journal by the APA, not conducted by the APA.

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