Abstaining from drinking alcohol for a month may do more harm than good, it has been suggested.
Millions of people are “currently on the wagon” - taking part in booze-free health drives such as ‘Dry January’ - after overindulging over the festive period.
But some academics are questioning whether alcohol abstinence campaigns, such as Dry January, could actually do more harm than good.
They fear some drinkers who stay off alcohol for all of January may see it as a green light to booze throughout the rest of the year.
Two experts debate the issue in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
Ian Hamilton, a lecturer at York University, is concerned by a lack of evidence that such campaigns work.
The Dry January campaign estimates that more than two million people “cut down their drinking” for January last year, but he said: “Popular doesn’t necessarily mean effective.”
And he argues that such types of campaign have had “no rigorous evaluation.”
He says it is not clear who Dry January is targeting. Trying to communicate a message about alcohol to the over 65s at the same time as the under 25s “risks the message not being heard, as the way these groups use alcohol is likely to be different.”
He added: “Many of us can be economical with the truth when it comes to how much we drink
“If people aren’t honest with themselves about their drinking, how can Dry January help?”
He warned that Dry January also risks sending out an “all or nothing” message about alcohol, and could be adding to the confusion which already exists in communicating messages about booze. For example, in public health advice about safe levels of alcohol consumption using recommended maximum daily or weekly units of alcohol.
He said that, although not the intention, people may view their 31 days of abstinence as permission to return to hazardous levels of consumption till next New Year’s day.
He also points out that, for some heavy drinkers, abrupt abstention from alcohol can induce serious symptoms such as seizures.
He added: “In sum, parched of evidence Dry January could have unintended consequences which would do more harm than good.”
But Ian Gilmore, honorary professor at Liverpool University, thinks such campaigns are likely to help people at least reflect on their drinking.
He points out that in Britain, consumption of alcohol per poerson has doubled over 40 years, and there are 1.5 million heavily dependent drinkers in the UK.
He said an independent evaluation of 2015’s Dry January by Public Health England showing that two out of three participants (67 per cent) said they had had a sustained drop in their drinking six months on.
An earlier evaluation by the University of Sussex found that 79 per cent of participants said they saved money, 62 per cent said they slept better and had more energy, and 49 per cent said they lost weight.
Gilmore said it should be stressed that the campaign is aimed at social not dependent drinkers, and heavy drinkers are recommended to see their GP before stopping suddenly and completely.
He added: “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.”
He said the recent release of the UK chief medical officers’ guidelines on drinking was “ timely” with their emphasis on having several alcohol-free days each week.
“Let’s support growing grassroots movements like Dry January and Dry July in Australia and take a month off.”