Around this time of year, many people seek to reduce, reform or moderate their drinking habits. However, the idea of what is considered “safe”, “sensible” or “responsible” drinking varies significantly at different points in time and across different countries. Public health advice once recommended that male alcohol consumption should be limited to less than 21 alcoholic units per week, for example, but in 2015 this was reduced to 14. Many drinking campaigns also seem to promote further different interpretations of moderate drinking.
January has become a battleground of competing ideas of what exactly moderation is. It’s hard to ignore high-profile campaigns such as Dry January, Try-Janaury, and Tryanuary which each invite us to change our drinking habits.
Dry January was the first such campaign in Britain, and invites individuals to raise money and awareness for the charity, Alcohol Concern, by not drinking alcohol throughout the month. As well as raising funds, the campaign is designed to reduce long-term alcohol consumption - a month without drinking will hopefully make you aware of the benefits of drinking less, such as losing weight or saving money. If you scroll through any number of #DryJanuary tweets, you will discover that the month of abstinence is commonly framed as a chance to hit reset – a chance to undo the bad habits of the previous year and imagine yourself as a different, more moderate drinker.
Some health professionals fear that, for some at least, participating in “dry” January might encourage excessive drinking later in the year. Indulging in frequent binges which are punctuated with temporary abstinence is not advised. However,evidence suggesting that Dry January may indeed be effective in reducing long-term consumption has reduced this opposition somewhat.
Nevertheless, the debate between these two positions stems from opposing ideas of moderation – permanent constraint versus periods of abstinence.
If not dry, why not try
“Try January” on the other hand encourages consumers to make January a month of experimentation instead and asks licensed premises to offer new food and drinks – an attempt to take an otherwise “dreary month and transform it into something fun”. The “try” campaign is not anti-moderation, but encourages a different form of moderation.
Another, similar campaign named “Tryanaury”, encourages consumers to support the UK’s resurgent independent breweries. Tryanuary does however insist that moderation is important and that “this isn’t about drinking more. It’s about trying something different”. This idea of moderation, then, is a matter of self-constraint and connoisseurship. It depicts the moderate drinker as being discerning and exploratory. Clearly, our sense of moderate drinking rests on more than just the quantity of drinks consumed.
In fact, research has found that many drinkers share this view and frame their drinking as more desirable than that of other people. In particular, real ale drinkers often defend their consumption habits on the grounds of their connoisseurship. They argue that they consume in a discerning way – paying respect and attention to taste, experimentation and detailed knowledge of beer styles.
Despite their obvious differences, the “dry” and “try” campaigns do have some things in common: they both use social media to allow both the initial commitment and ongoing efforts of the participants to be made public, and offer a sense of community and mutual encouragement - something that many of the more individualistic public health efforts to reduce alcohol consumption have not done.
The enormous variety of meanings attributed to moderate alcohol consumption means that conflicts between different notions of how we should and should not drink are played out annually at this time of year. The “dry” and “try” campaigns have thrived on the fact that January has become a jumble of competing messages about resolutions. Individuals are subjected to differing advice, expertise and guidance - so moderation isn’t simply defined by the unit limits that are expressed in public health advice. Drinking is too socially and culturally complex for “moderate drinking” to have a single, all-encompassing definition.