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For some, the new Dry January isn't actually dry

Some participants no longer view Dry January as a stringent initiative that involves quitting alcohol cold-turkey for a full month.
Image: Jake Smith
This is Jake Smith's second time trying Dry January, but this time he plans on allowing himself the occasional drink.Courtesy of Jake Smith

Whitney Duhrkopf was only three days into her self-imposed Dry January pact when she broke it and had a couple of beers.

“I’ve already cheated once, but I feel good,” Duhrkopf, 27, told NBC News. “It’s less about rigidity and more about using the 30 days to take a step back instead of mindlessly consuming alcohol.”

Dry January, a challenge in which social drinkers voluntarily abstain from alcohol for the month in an effort to reevaluate their relationship with drinking, is a recent, collective take on the New Year's Resolution. After overindulging in food and drink over the holiday season, people view the challenge as a way to reset and detox.

“We live in a culture that promotes alcohol use, but in the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve started to gain a collective understanding that the negative medical consequences associated with drinking aren’t just getting into car accidents or cirrhosis," Dr. James Gabutt, a psychiatry professor at the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina, offered as an explanation for Dry January's rise in popularity.

While Dry January originated in the United Kingdom in 2013, when the nonprofit Alcohol Change UK started a campaign to raise money for alcohol abuse and treatment, it has morphed into a global phenomenon, with people throughout Europe and the United States participating. According to the data analytics group YouGov, 14 percent of its December survey respondents based in the U.S. planned to abstain from alcohol in January.

Though this percentage is sizable, it marks a decrease from 2019, during which more than 20 percent of respondents based in the U.S. recorded that they would be participating in Dry January. Though multiple factors are likely contributing to the change, a core one may be that participants like Duhrkopf are no longer stringent about quitting alcohol cold-turkey for the month, but rather are using the challenge as a way to be “intentional” about how frequently they drink. According to a wave of participants on social media, an occasional drink is now allowed during Dry January.

Alex Kealy, a comedian based in London, said the last time he tried Dry January, he made it for about two weeks before quitting.

“I spend 4-5 nights a week at bars for various sets, which makes it extremely difficult to not have any alcohol,” Kealy, 30, said. “After a show, it can be a reward or part of the ritual to get a drink.”

This year, Kealy said he’s trying something different. Instead of abstaining from alcohol completely, he’s allowing himself to indulge in what he calls “pseudo-drinks” containing 0.5 alcohol by volume (ABV), which are labeled by bars as “nonalcoholic” or “alcohol-free.” He’s successfully avoided alcohol so far and says that not going to bed tipsy allows him to read before sleeping, which he enjoys.

Though the nonalcoholic drinks serve as a substitute during the nights of his comedy shows, Kealy anticipates Dry January becoming more challenging throughout the month. He has a first date and at least two parties lined up — situations where he usually drinks socially — and is contemplating whether he should take a “pit stop” on these occasions.

“A first date is probably the worst time not to get a drink,” Kealy said. “And I hate dancing at parties sober. It’s going to be pretty appalling.”

Like Duhrkopf and Kealy, Jake Smith, a research editor at Northwestern University near Chicago, plans to allocate certain days to drink in January — including his six-month wedding anniversary — as he undertakes the challenge this year.

Smith was a Dry January success story in 2016, powering through the uncomfortable judgment that accompanies breaking a cultural norm.

“Last time I did Dry January, I felt weird and conspicuous deviating from the norm,” he said. “I’d be at a bar with friends and everyone would order a drink and I’d whisper to the bartender ‘I’ll have a Diet Coke’ as if it was a secret.”

Although he stopped drinking for six months after Dry January ended, he has since reverted to drinking socially more consistently and decided to focus his effort this year on drinking less, instead of fervently avoiding alcohol.

“I think the flexibility that I’m building in this time will allow me to make long-lasting healthier choices for me,” Smith, who is doing the challenge with his wife this year, said.

Dry January has been said by experts to produce numerous health benefits, including better sleep, concentration and digestion, lower blood glucose, clearer skin, weight loss and less anxiety. Abstaining from alcohol for a month has also been linked to lower drinking in the following six months.

But what happens when a participant does not abstain from alcohol for the full 30 days, opting instead to lower their intake? Can they too experience significant health benefits?

According to Gabutt, “minimizing alcohol intake," whether that involves abstaining from alcohol for a full month or drinking less in general, can produce health benefits. While he said the benefits of short-term alcohol abstinence depend on a person’s age, gender and underlying health, a 2018 study that monitored the health of 600,000 people found that regardless of demographics, higher alcohol consumption was associated with a greater rate of stroke, fatal aneurysms, health failure and death.

Dry January can not only led to individual health benefits but can also lead to cultural shifts by normalizing both sobriety and drinking less.

Kate Kastelein, a writer based in Maine, said she decided to go "dry" two years ago because of health issues, which has proved challenging given that “a lot of activities” in her town involve drinking. Yet during Dry January, she not only finds that people are more willing to try other activities like grabbing coffee or exercising together, but that she is also less likely to be asked invasive questions about her drinking because “people just assume you’re doing Dry January.”

She also said although some people argue that Dry January could hurt businesses, she sees it as an opportunity for local hubs to broaden their clientele.

“In small town Maine, I could go out and get a Sprite, but it’s so nice to get a mocktail and feel like a real grown-up,” Kastelein, 42, said. “Businesses should realize this is a growing trend and find creative ways to embrace Dry January.”