Opinion: Why ‘Dry January’ is a bad idea

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Let’s face it: America has a drinking problem. As in too many of us consume way too much alcohol and pay the price in terms of our health, our careers and our relationships.

And yet, I am skeptical about Dry January.

By now, I’m sure you know all about this challenge of going alcohol-free during the first month of the year. Chances are you may be attempting it yourself. In a 2023 study, a remarkable 41% of Americans surveyed by the polling platform CivicScience said they were likely to do Dry January.

For the record, if you feel you need to cut back on your drinking, Dry January is probably not a bad idea, according to addiction experts I consulted. It might be a very good idea, in fact.

Lest we forget the seriousness of the disease of addiction: Each year, roughly 140,000 Americans die of alcohol-related causes, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. And 16.1 million of us report having drank heavily in the past month. Those are scary numbers indeed.

But Dry January still has its limitations and risks.

Begin with the most critical element: If you have a major drinking problem, it can be dangerous and even deadly to go cold turkey on your own, experts advise. That’s because you may suffer from major withdrawal symptoms, from heart palpitations to headaches, and the need for medical supervision during detoxification can be essential.

Beyond that, there’s a mental-health component. People often self-medicate with alcohol, using it to help with their depression, anxiety or any number of other conditions. Remove the booze and the person might be physically healthier, but those underlying emotional problems remain and need to be addressed. In effect, Dry January can’t be done in a vacuum.

Or as Cheryl Brown Merriwether, executive director of the Orlando-based International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education (ICARE), told me: “Alcohol-use disorder is a disease and it needs to be treated as a disease.”

If you have a serious drinking problem, it can be dangerous and even deadly to go cold turkey on your own, experts advise.

What about those of us who drink occasionally, but don’t necessarily suffer from a true disorder: Would January stand to benefit us?

It depends, experts advise. Certainly, it can offer some short-term benefits, such as weight loss and improved sleep. And it may create greater awareness of our drinking patterns, so that we emerge from Dry January with a commitment to better manage our alcohol consumption during the rest of the year.

But there’s a rub here. While there’s some evidence that those who give up booze at the beginning of the year may end up drinking less down the road, some experts worry that Dry January can lead to Overindulgence February. Or, at the very least, it won’t really prompt long-term change.

Such is the real challenge that drinking can present, explained Lisa Ferguson, a recovering alcoholic who helps run Right Path House, a group of sober houses in Connecticut.

“You may well have the rebound effect. It happens all the time,” Ferguson told me.

My questioning of Dry January goes deeper than that, however. I can’t help but wonder if what started as a well-intentioned movement has become reduced to a fad — something people do because it’s trendy and suits the tenor of the times.

In the process, a lot of these people seem more than eager to broadcast their month-long sojourn into sobriety, almost as if they’ve turned what could be a worthwhile health-minded goal into a form of virtue signaling. Or for whatever reason, they just have the desire to share with the world the details of their drinking — or not drinking, as it were.

Francine Cohen, a veteran food-and-beverage industry consultant, put it thusly: “Sometimes I go to a bar or restaurant and order an alcoholic beverage. Sometimes I choose water or another option. But never do I feel any obligation to explain myself.”

Cohen raises another point — that so many of the non-alcoholic beverages that have flooded store shelves in the last few years miss the mark. As someone who writes a fair bit about wine, beer and spirits, I concur: The faux booze rarely equals the real deal flavor-wise. I’d rather have a Coke and call it a day.

People seem eager to broadcast their month-long sojourn into sobriety, almost as if they’ve turned what could be a worthwhile goal into a form of virtue signaling.

Still, people are buying the stuff: NielsenIQ reports the non-alcohol segment grew by $121 million in the past year to reach $510 million in sales. Heck, there’s now an alcohol-free version of White Claw, the popular hard-seltzer brand.

Last I checked, booze-free hard seltzer is something we’ve been drinking for ages. It’s called — duh! — seltzer. The White Claw team nevertheless says the drink hits the spot.

It “looks, tastes, and feels completely different from anything out there,” said Kevin Brady, a vice president of Mark Anthony Brands Inc., the company behind White Claw.

No matter how tasty it might prove, let’s be honest with ourselves: A great glass of wine, a sip of quality whiskey, a thirst-quenching beer — these are things to treasure in life. Yes, we must guard against alcohol misuse. But if we can keep our drinking fully in check, must we feel pressured to give it up, even for a month?

Donald Hensrud, a Mayo Clinic physician and associate professor of nutrition and preventive medicine at the clinic’s medical school, doesn’t disagree with me. While he’s quick to note that recent research has started to debunk the idea that drinking alcohol can be healthy, he nevertheless recognizes the pleasure that glass of vino can bring.

“There is enjoyment and relaxation,” he told me, though he did reiterate the need to keep things within sensible medical bounds.

And here’s another thought: If you really want to forego the booze, why does it have to be in January? We all know how difficult it is to stick to our New Year’s resolutions.

For that matter, why does it have to be about a month of sobriety? Peter Vernig, vice president of mental-health services at the Recovery Centers of America, suggests there are other ways to cut back — not just for a month, but in general — that might be more helpful in terms of rethinking our consumption of alcohol.

“You could reduce the amount you drink in a single setting. You could reduce the number of days you drink in a week,” Vernig said.

I’ve been drinking less myself in the past year, largely because I’ve been trying to lose weight and I view alcohol as the quintessential example of empty calories. And yet, I see no reason to do Dry January because I continue to enjoy that occasional sip — in moderation. If others feel there’s something to be gained from 31 days of booze-free living, good for them, I say.

But the caveats and cautions still apply.



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