Last January, more than 2 million reduced their alcohol consumption by giving up drinking for the month, and “2016 is looking to be even bigger,” according to the charity Alcohol Concern in England and Wales, which launched a Dry January campaign four years ago to raise awareness and funds.
A quick check of the hashtags #sobuary and #sobertober on social media returns thousands of posts in the US and elsewhere, revealing the appeal of these campaigns beyond just Dry January.
Consumers are drawn to such campaigns as a way to cut calories, sleep better, save money and generally hit the reset button or detox. They often also seek out alternative better-for-you beverages to replace alcohol, which could create a marketing opportunity for other players in the beverage space.
But do these types of campaigns deliver on their claimed benefits? And are they healthy?
Campaigns encourage reflection
Ian Gilmore, honorary professor at Liverpool University, says they are helpful – at least to an extent.
In an editorial published in The BMJ Jan. 14, he points to research that shows a month off of alcohol improved participants blood pressure, liver stiffness, insulin resistance, body mass index and other health markers.
He also noted that an independent evaluation of 2015’s Dry January showed 67% of participants continued to drink less for six months after their self-imposed abstinence lifted.
In addition, an earlier evaluation by the University of Sussex found 70% of participants saved money, 62% slept better and hand more energy and 49% lost weight.
“More studies are needed to see how sustainable some of these benefits are, but the overwhelming experience of those participants is greater well-being, better sleep and a sense of achievement,” he writes.
Unintended, negative consequences
But Ian Hamilton, a lecturer at the Department of Health Sciences at York University, isn’t as sure, according to the editorial.
First, he doubts the self-reported results, noting a “large disparity” with total alcohol sold and asks how Dry January can help if “people aren’t honest with themselves about their drinking.”
He also criticizes the campaigns’ “binary, all or nothing, message about alcohol,” which he claims could unintentionally cause two main problems. One, he says, it compounds confusion about how much alcohol is safe to drink, and two, participants might return to heavy drinking when the month ends – “ignoring the need for regular breaks from alcohol.”
Gilmore also recognized this risk and said participants would need to address the myth that their bodies were “detoxed” after a month away from alcohol and they could go back to their old ways without guilt.
Hamilton also worries heavy drinkers would not get the support they need from such campaigns to either sustain abstinence or do so without suffering serious withdraw symptoms.
“In sum,” he writes, “parched of evidence Dry January could have unintended consequences, which could do more harm than good.”
While health advocates continue to hash out the pros and cons of the campaigns, consumers likely will continue to participate.
A marketing opportunity
The alcohol industry’s loss during these campaigns could be a gain for other segments of the beverage category given participants likely look for alternative beverages to sip in place of alcohol.
The last few years have seen a rise in mocktails and craft sodas, which could be attributed in part to consumers searching for healthier beverages. These categories, as well as other better-for-you beverages, could benefit from marketing campaigns that coincide with Dry January, Sobuary (in February) and Sobertober (in October).