Despite the fact that 20% of adults are now claiming that they don’t drink any alcohol and the incidence of binge drinking is declining, the nation still has a problem with alcohol. 10.8m adults in England are drinking at levels that pose some risk to their health and 1.6m have some sort of alcohol dependence. The effects of harmful drinking doesn’t just affect the individual, it affects all of us, costing some £21bn to society made up of healthcare costs, lost productivity and alcohol related crime.
So is Dry January an effective way to address the nation’s drinking problem? It taps into a number of behavioural insights. The binary decision – to drink or not to drink- is a far easier choice than reducing the number of units consumed, a currency that many people struggle to get their heads round. It also creates a social norm and peer pressure – lots of people (like you) are doing it.
In 2015 over 2 million people went booze free for the month of January and Alcohol Concern teamed up with Public Health England to offer support via social media and online advice. 
However, does its popularity mean that it’s effective? Some academics question whether people may view their month of abstinence as permission to return to their hazardous levels of drinking until the next New Year’s Day. They question whether total withdrawal, through a do-it-yourself detox, is the right approach for heavy drinkers who have a dependency on alcohol. These people need expert help and a supervised detox programme to ensure their withdrawal from alcohol is managed safely.
Responding to the first challenge: Independent evaluation concluded that 67% of participants in Dry January 2015 claimed that they had a sustained drop in their drinking 6 months on. They are now not only drinking less frequently and drinking less per day, but they’re also getting drunk less . Whilst people aren’t always honest about their alcohol consumption, even if the true figure is a fraction of the claimed figure, this is still impressive
After completing Dry January, participants also highlighted what benefits they experienced after 31 days alcohol free
• 82% of participants felt a sense of achievement
• 79% of participants saved money
• 62% of participants had better sleep
• 62% of participants had more energy
• 49% of participants lost weight
And researchers at The Royal Free Hospital showed that one month’s abstinence produced remarkable changes in things like insulin resistance and body mass index.
I wouldn’t dispute the second challenge – that Dry January isn’t the right approach for heavy, alcohol dependent drinkers. On the other hand, the campaign is aimed at social not dependent drinkers and heavy drinkers are recommended to see their GP to get expert help. It can’t be negative that these heavily dependent drinkers are taking a first step towards addressing their problem.
Therefore, overall I believe that Dry January is effective, with the positives far outweighing the negatives. As well as reducing alcohol consumption on a mass scale, it also makes people more conscious of their drinking behaviours, or as Professor Kevin Fenton from Public Health England puts it, helping to reset people’s relationship with alcohol.
Brian Sassoon – Joint Head of Planning OgilvyOne