Going without alcohol for a month is a tough sell even among social drinkers. Just ask my colleagues. However, a number of recent studies find short-term abstinence can positively affect our health. It's in this spirit campaigns like "Dry January" recommend taking a month off from drinking — but a recent debate between experts Ian Hamilton and Ian Gilmore calls these campaigns into questions.

Dry January Doesn't Work

"Last year, over 2 million people cut down their drinking for January," said Hamilton, a lecturer at York University, in a statement. "Many of us can be economical with the truth when it comes to how much we drink. In sum, parched of evidence Dry January could have unintended consequences which would do more harm than good."

Hamilton said programs that preach an "all or nothing" message regarding alcohol could be confusing to young people who are already inundated with confusing alcohol messages. It's also not clear what age group these campaigns are targeting. Trying to get a message across to someone over the age of 65, as well as someone under age of 25 "risks the message not being heard, as the way these groups use alcohol is likely to be different."

Hamilton is also concerned by the lack of evidence showing these campaigns actually work and are without unintended consequences. For example, he's worried people may view their 31 days of abstinence as a reason to continue drinking alcohol irresponsibly until January rolls around next year, though that's not what this type of campaign intends. Dry January "has had no rigorous evaluation," so calling them popular doesn’t necessarily mean they are effective, he said.

Dry January Does Work

Gilmore, on the other hand, said even if these campaigns don't result in long-term abstinence, they still force people to reevaluate their drinking habits. He also brought some statistics with him. He cited alcohol consumption per capita has doubled over the past 40 years in the United Kingdom, leading to 1.5 million heavily-dependent drinkers. By his estimate, around two million adults participate in Dry January after bingeing on both food and alcohol over the holiday season.

He recalls two evaluations of 2015’s Dry January — one that was conducted independently by Public Health England, the second by the University of Sussex. While 67 percent of participants from the independent evaluation said they had continued to monitor the amount of alcohol they consumed into June and July, 79 percent of participants from the University of Sussex evaluation said they saved money; 62 percent said they slept better and had more energy, and 49 percent said they lost weight.

"Let's support growing grass-roots movements like Dry January and Dry July in Australia and take a month off," said Gilmore, an honorary professor at Liverpool University. "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."

In response to Hamilton's worry that these campaigns do not make it clear who they are targeting, Gilmore recommends aiming these campaigns toward social drinkers and not those who are dependent on alcohol. To prevent alcohol withdrawal among heavy drinkers looking to participate in Dry January, he also suggests they talk to their doctor before going cold turkey.

Timely guidelines released by the chief medical officers in the UK seem to agree with Gilmore, recommending further research on how a few alcohol-free days each week could salvage our health.

Source: Gilmore I, Hamilton I. Head to Head: Could alcohol abstinence campaigns like Dry January do more harm than good? The BMJ. 2016.