Intended for healthcare professionals

Head To Head

Could campaigns like Dry January do more harm than good?

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: (Published 13 January 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i143
  1. Ian Hamilton, lecturer, Department of Health Sciences, York University, York, UK,
  2. Ian Gilmore, honorary professor, Liverpool University, Liverpool, UK
  1. Correspondence to I Hamilton ian.hamilton{at}, I Gilmore I.Gilmore{at}

Lack of evidence that such campaigns work and don’t have unintended consequences, concerns Ian Hamilton. But Ian Gilmore thinks they are likely to help people at least reflect on their drinking

Yes—Ian Hamilton

Two questions should be asked of any public health message about alcohol: is it evidence based and who is the target audience? Now in its fourth year, the Dry January campaign, which uses peer pressure to encourage abstinence from alcohol for the month, is promoted by the charity Alcohol Concern in England and Wales.1 It is supported by Public Health England so in effect has government approval. The campaign estimates that “Last year over 2 million people cut down their drinking for January.”1

But popular doesn’t necessarily mean effective. Alcohol Concern’s ambition is to alter people’s relationship with alcohol by encouraging us to reduce the amount we drink, not just for a month but for life. Unfortunately, this type of campaign has had no rigorous evaluation.

Self selecting participants

It is not clear who Dry January is targeting. Because participants select themselves it could attract the people at lowest risk from health problems related to alcohol. Because they consume less alcohol they are also likely to find a month of abstinence relatively easy, as a recent study indicates.2 The campaign should offer a range of advice and more carefully tailor these messages to match the individual’s use of alcohol.3 For example, one high risk group is people aged over 65. 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 …

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