Dry January: an example of individual preventive healthcare, or does the UK still need to regulate unhealthy habits?

Elena Campbell, Consultant

As January draws to a close, for some this also means the end of a month of abstaining from alcohol. Dry January, a campaign originating in the UK and officially registered by Alcohol Change UK in 2013, has sparked conversation around the benefits of having a break from drinking. Dry January was officially endorsed by Public Health England in 2015, leading to a significant increase in participation. In its first year, 4,000 people signed up for Dry January and it has grown in popularity ever since with over 130,000 people signing up to take part in 2022. In addition to official registration figures, polling also showed that 9 million people expressed an intention to abstain in 2023.

The short-term health benefits after a month were reported in a study by the University of Sussex, highlighting that 62 percent of participants had better sleep and 49 percent lost weight after a month without alcohol. Another study noted results including improved insulin sensitivity and reduced blood pressure, and research from the Netherlands documented a change in a marker of liver inflammation. Though despite the demonstrable health benefits, can a month alcohol-free really make a difference long-term?

Whilst the individual benefits of Dry January are well documented, a question remains around the role of Government and the extent it could, or indeed should, be regulating unhealthy habits. Whilst the Conservative Party is traditionally associated with championing personal freedom and limited government intervention, most recently we have seen Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledge to create a smoke free generation and announce that disposable vapes will be banned to protect children’s health. These moves suggest that even the traditionally more libertarian Conservative Party is not afraid to use regulation to seek to improve health outcomes. It was signalled that these moves may be coming when in 2016, Chancellor George Osborne imposed a tax on sugary drinks, and in 2021 Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed to restrict advertising and promotions of certain ‘unhealthy’ foods.

On the other side of the House, Labour have committed to building an NHS fit for the future as part of their five missions. A key pillar of this mission is to put prevention front and centre of the agenda. Labour have also stated that the absence of a joined-up plan for health has been highlighted by an unwillingness to lead on a range of health issues including like smoking, alcohol harm and gambling harm. Contrastingly, Labour’s plans for supervised tooth brushing led to accusations the opposition is embracing the “nanny state”. When questioned on this, Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer said he is “up for that fight”.

The practicalities of what the fight means for future health policies on alcohol harm remains to be seen. But with a general election fast approaching, and the NHS a key priority for both the Conservatives and Labour, Dry January remains a small but significant step in the improvement of health outcomes.

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