Is there any point in giving up booze for January?

Last year Jamie Merrill became one of thousands of 'dryathletes'. Will he be doing it again in 2013?

I drink too much. I'm not a binge or problem drinker but a social drinker who exceeds my recommended weekly allowance more often than I care to admit and drink more days in the week than I stay dry. This worries me. I know that booze kills 9,000 people a year and that if I carry on as I am, I'm likely to damage my liver and store up a list of problems, from cancer to heart disease, for the future.

I'm not alone. NHS estimates suggest 9 per cent of men and 3 per cent of women show signs of alcohol dependency. How do you tell if you are a dependant drinker? The line between social drinking and dependency should be pretty clear; the first question that a doctor or addiction specialist would ask is: "Has anyone expressed concern to you about your drinking?" Put more bluntly, they are asking you if your drinking has hurt someone you love or you are close to.

Thankfully, I can truthfully answer no to this question, but like many of my friends I'm still worried about how much alcohol I consume and how often I consume it. We're a close-knit group of late-20s professionals, who all drank reasonably heavily at university, and while none of us has ever ended up in A&E on a Saturday night, it's fair to say that we still drink more than we should. In the last six months alone a close friend had to sign off booze for weeks after one-too-many pre-Christmas sessions and another received a stern warning letter from his GP. His crime? He'd been a little too honest on a health questionnaire and how many units he consumed each week. Other friends have similar stories.

In the last decade alone there has been a 63 per cent increase in prescriptions for the treatment of alcohol dependency in England and a 20 per cent rise in deaths from liver disease. The majority of these people are middle-aged with a history of many years of frequent drinking, though. It's this demographic that costs the NHS a staggering £825m a year in alcohol-related hospital admissions (the supposedly troublesome under-24s cost a mere £64m). And the worry my generation rarely admits is that we might be blazing a similar path along this boozy road trodden by our baby-boomer parents' generation of middle-aged drinkers.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, a liver specialist and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, is worried and believes the number of people dying from liver disease will keep rising: "People forget that alcohol is a toxic drug and a drug of dependence. It can no longer be considered like soap powder in terms of marketing and availability. We need to treat it with respect and move the social norm to a place where people don't feel uncomfortable not drinking and alcohol isn't irrevocably linked to every major social occasion or celebration."

This is exactly the aim of two new campaigns launched by Alcohol Concern and Cancer Research UK to encourage social drinkers to give up booze for the 31 days of January. The campaigns are unconnected, but both are using Facebook and Twitter to reach a new audience of social drinkers. Cancer Research UK is running Dryathlon and asking drinkers to raise money for alcohol-related cancer research, while Alcohol Concern has launched Dry January, to raise awareness and stop today's social drinkers becoming the dependent drinkers of the future.

My generation of younger social drinkers is one of the key target demographics, says Emily Robinson, director of campaigns at Alcohol Concern. "We're aiming to raise awareness among social drinkers because as a nation we love to talk about alcohol, but we are having the wrong conversations. The idea of Dry January is to try and get people to have conversations with their friends and family about how much they drink and whether it's healthy."

I'm not new to this. I went dry successfully in January 2012 after a combination of well-intentioned nagging from less boozy friends and a steady drip-drip of bad-news medical stories in the media kept me off drink. I'd be lying if I said it was easy and I had one day off for my birthday, but I stayed dry, lost weight and saved a small fortune.

Undoubtedly some nights would have gone more smoothly with social lubricant and I had more than one or two rambling discussions with less-than-sober friends explaining why I'd opted to stay on the wagon. But I soon found that while booze was central to most of my evening activities, it wasn't essential.

I also slept far better, which is easy to explain; alcohol suppresses the body's production of glutamine, one of its natural stimulants, so when you head home after a night out, production is revved up again, resulting in shallow, fitful sleep. Cut out the booze and sleep becomes deeper, better and far more restful. Last January I slept like a baby again.

Aside from promoting the financial and health benefits of their campaigns, Alcohol Concern and Cancer Research UK are trying to raise awareness about the danger of alcohol dependency. "We want people to realise that they can go to the pub without an alcoholic drink and that their social life won't fall apart as a result," Robinson says. My experience showed I was able to give up booze for a month, but does staying off booze for one sustained period a year really change habits?

"Medically, the most important benefit of giving up alcohol for a month is proving to yourself that you can stop drinking on demand," Professor Gilmore says. "And if you can't stop drinking then you have to seriously ask yourself if you are in danger of joining the country's 1.5 million dependent drinkers.

"While I'm backing dry January campaigns because they concentrate the mind and show people what is possible, drinkers still need to think about their consumption all year around. And if you were to give me the choice between somebody giving up drinking for January but drinking every day for the rest of the year and someone avoiding alcohol two or three nights a week all year, I'd probably prefer the latter."

Andrew Langford, the chief executive of the British Liver Trust, agrees: "Anything that gets you thinking about your drinking pattern is a good thing, but our advice isn't so much about abstaining for a month but changing your drinking habits permanently. And I'm not overly impressed with the Cancer Research UK campaign, for example, because it doesn't have much to say about what do after January."

Langford and Gilmore's reservations strike a chord with me. I found that after staying dry for January my drinking soon returned to its previous levels, because like many people my problem is not drinking vast quantities every Friday and Saturday night, but the regular drip feed every night of the week.

"If you are drinking most nights of the week then it almost doesn't matter how much you are drinking as it is already dangerous because you are not giving your liver the chance to recover it needs," Langford says.

"For many people that daily glass of wine can be as much as half a bottle. For women that's already exceeding their daily allowance and it's this regular drinking that's creating a hidden epidemic of alcohol-related liver disease from regular drinkers. It's approaching our doorstep now and only a really big cultural change will alter that."

A cultural change is exactly what I and many other social drinkers need, but how do we achieve it? I certainly wouldn't criticise anyone aiming to stay dry for the next month but our relationship with alcohol is far more complex than just staying sober for 31 days. And as Professor Gilmore points out, "there isn't any evidence that a block of time off is better or worse than a moderate approach to drinking all year. My advice remains that drink in moderation and avoid alcohol entirely two or three nights a week".

The truth, though, is that deep down most social drinkers know when they are drinking too much and it's those people that Dry January and Dryathlon are aimed at. I'll be going dry again this month and hoping I can translate that into a more sensible relationship with alcohol for all of 2013. Why don't you join me?

News
Denny Miller in 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man
people
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl despairs during the arena auditions
tvX Factor review: Drama as Cheryl and Simon spar over girl band

News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Angel Di Maria celebrates his first goal for Manchester United against QPR
Football4-0 victory is team's first win under new manager Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
newsIn short, yes
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script
tv'Thomas comes right up to the abyss', says the actor
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris claimed the top spot in this week's single charts
music
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
News
Groundskeeper Willie has backed Scottish independence in a new video
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor poses the question of whether we are every truly alone in 'Listen'
tvReview: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode to date
News
i100
Life and Style
Cara Delevigne at the TopShop Unique show during London Fashion Week
fashion
News
The life-sized tribute to Amy Winehouse was designed by Scott Eaton and was erected at the Stables Market in Camden
peopleBut quite what the singer would have made of her new statue...
Sport
England's Andy Sullivan poses with his trophy and an astronaut after winning a trip to space
sport
News
peopleThe actress has agreed to host the Met Gala Ball - but not until 2015
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

    £50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and i...

    Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

    £50 - £65 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and...

    Primary Teaching Supply

    £130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

    Year 1/2 Teacher

    £130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

    Day In a Page

    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
    The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

    The fall of Rome?

    Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
    Glasgow girl made good

    Glasgow girl made good

    Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
    Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

    Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

    Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
    The landscape of my imagination

    The landscape of my imagination

    Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories