Revealed: Efforts to stay sober during Dry January frequently hit the rocks because socialising make it harder to abstain, research shows
- Researchers analysed studies covering 3,300 people on drinking more sensibly
- Individuals made plans like switching to soft drink once they had had three units
As dry January draws to a close, there is bad news for those who started the year determined to drink less.
Even the best-laid plans to cut back on alcohol are pretty ineffective, a scientific review suggests.
Researchers analysed 16 studies, covering more than 3,300 people, on commitments to drink more sensibly.
As dry January draws to a close, a study has revealed that well-intentioned attempts to cut back on alcohol are usually ineffective (file image)
In every study, volunteers made detailed plans, such as pledging to switch to a soft drink if they were likely to exceed three units – the equivalent of a large glass of wine.
But this approach had only a small effect on alcohol consumption.
When it came to drinking too much in a single session, people were just as likely to over-indulge whether they had made a plan or not.
Richard Cooke, a professor who led the review by Staffordshire University, said: ‘Plans work well to help people become more active or stick to low-fat diets, but the problem is that you make a plan about alcohol alone and then drink with other people.
‘At home, a partner can become a facilitator who creates pressure to finish off a bottle of wine.
‘In a pub, it is hard to drink sensibly because people typically buy drinks in rounds.
‘Not drinking is hard to stick to because it draws attention to yourself and feels socially awkward, as if you are suggesting others in the group who are still drinking are doing something bad.
‘It is the social aspect of drinking which makes a plan less effective.’
Published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, the review looked at both weekly alcohol consumption and individual drinking sessions.
For most of the studies analysed, over-indulging was defined as six units in one sitting for women, which is the equivalent of two large glasses of wine, and eight units for men, which is around three pints of beer.
People who made plans not to over-indulge did not actually drink any less in a single session, based on their self-reported alcohol consumption.
But they did reduce their weekly alcohol intake by a minimal amount – perhaps by using strategies including reducing the number of times they drank.
Researchers measured reductions in what people drank before and after making an alcohol-reduction plan, and compared that with the reduction over the same period in people without a plan.
It was not possible to conclude exactly how many fewer alcoholic drinks a week someone would consume on average after making a plan to cut down, because the studies measured quantities differently.
But the review authors say people may want to try adding motivational elements into their plans, although more research is needed on how well these work.
Such elements could include focusing on the weight they would lose by cutting back on booze, the health benefits, or being more like their friends who do not drink very much.
‘Booster’ plans may also help, so if people fail to reach one target on how much to drink, they can set a more reasonable one afterwards, and stick to that.
Professor Cooke said: ‘More research is needed and there is a risk of bias in some of these studies, but it seems a plan to reduce alcohol will have only a small effect.’
DO YOU DRINK TOO MUCH ALCOHOL? THE 10 QUESTIONS THAT REVEAL YOUR RISK
One screening tool used widely by medical professionals is the AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Tests). Developed in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, the 10-question test is considered to be the gold standard in helping to determine if someone has alcohol abuse problems.
The test has been reproduced here with permission from the WHO.
To complete it, answer each question and note down the corresponding score.
0-7: You are within the sensible drinking range and have a low risk of alcohol-related problems.
Over 8: Indicate harmful or hazardous drinking.
8-15: Medium level of risk. Drinking at your current level puts you at risk of developing problems with your health and life in general, such as work and relationships. Consider cutting down (see below for tips).
16-19: Higher risk of complications from alcohol. Cutting back on your own may be difficult at this level, as you may be dependent, so you may need professional help from your GP and/or a counsellor.
20 and over: Possible dependence. Your drinking is already causing you problems, and you could very well be dependent. You should definitely consider stopping gradually or at least reduce your drinking. You should seek professional help to ascertain the level of your dependence and the safest way to withdraw from alcohol.
Severe dependence may need medically assisted withdrawal, or detox, in a hospital or a specialist clinic. This is due to the likelihood of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms in the first 48 hours needing specialist treatment.