The annual tradition gives us a time to clear our heads as we begin the new year.
“I’m with you next month, by the way,” the cashier told me, glancing at the name on my credit card before handing it back.
Oh, geez. You sure you want to climb onto the wagon next to me? It can be a pretty bumpy ride.
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Since I started writing about my annual Dry January, when I start the year by abstaining from alcohol for 31 days, I have shaken and stirred up some potent reactions.
Some readers tell me of their own experiences abstaining. Others believe that if I have to make a purposeful and public effort to stop drinking, I surely have a problem. I have been called self-involved, righteous, in denial and out of column ideas.
A sampling, from a reader named Tom: “It’s particularly irritating to us alcoholics, who have a daily — wait, an hourly — struggle on our hands. And I have to believe it’s irritating to non-alcoholics who just can’t stand this woman’s sanctimony.”
Calm down. Dry January is just an exercise that forces me to think about my alcohol consumption: What it means, what it costs. And if others are inspired to do the same, great. No one’s keeping score.
This year, it’s even easier to do, as the UK-based campaign has opened sign-ups to those without a British address (I’ve been sneaking in these past years, using the address for Abbey Road Studios on my registration).
So far, nearly 300 people in the US have signed up for the 2016 campaign, which is put on by the Alcohol Concern, the UK’s leading national charity working on alcohol issues.
When it started in 2013, the Dry January campaign had 4,000 sign-ups. Last year, the number of registrants had grown to 50,000 people, while opinion polls indicated that some two million Brits went dry last January.
“Taking a month off of booze is becoming the norm,” said Jackie Ballard, the Alcohol Concern’s chief executive, via email.
“Alcohol is deeply embedded in British culture and the aim of Dry January is to start a new conversation about alcohol,” she said. “We have rising alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions in Britain.”
Alcohol is linked to over 60 medical conditions, including seven types of cancer, high blood pressure and depression.
“People often don’t know how drinking too much, too often can harm their health,” Ballard said.
On this side of the pond, a recent Wall Street Journal story reported that chronic, heavy drinking can cause “insidious” damage to the brain, even in people who don’t seem intoxicated or addicted.
It also reported that alcohol-related damage is undiagnosed, and often confused with Alzheimer’s and dementia, since it changes “how the brain regulates emotion and anxiety and disrupts sleep systems, creating wide-ranging effects on the body.”
So researchers are “bracing” for an onslaught of cognitive problems in aging baby boomers.
At the same time, an English Longitudinal Study of Ageing study found that people who drink moderately (generally defined as one drink a day for women, two for men) have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, depression and some cognitive issues than those who don’t drink at all.
With all this to sort through, it’s no wonder that an increasing number of people are cutting themselves off to rethink their drink.
The Dry January campaign is happy to have them.
The campaign’s website is loaded with resources, including forums where participants can talk and support each other and get advice from experts; recipes for “mocktails” and an Impact Calculator, which tracks what “your usual tipple” adds up to in calories and cash. (It also allows you to donate to the Alcohol Concern what you would have spent on booze).
My weekly tipple of six glasses of wine and two spirits drinks added up to 14 units costing $44.92, and racking up 824 calories. Could that be right? Sounds like Two-Buck Chuck and two shots of Popov vodka consumed during a spin class.
Light or not, that adds up to $200 and 3,300 calories a month.
Paging Dr Pepper.
Some 67 percent of participants had “sustained, reduced levels of drinking” six months after completing Dry January, Ballard said, and eight percent stayed completely dry.
“We’re clear that the campaign is aimed at the social drinker, encouraging them to give up alcohol for a month,” Ballard said. “It is not a medical detox program, so anyone who is worried they may have a dependency problem should speak to their doctor.”
And if that isn’t enough, she said, consider the cost to society: “Alcohol harm” costs British society £21 billion a year.
Here in America, excessive alcohol use is considered a “drain” on the economy, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Excessive drinking cost the U.S. $249 billion in 2010, or $2.05 per drink — up from $223.5 billion in 2006. Most of the costs were blamed on reduced workplace productivity, crime and the cost of treating people for health problems caused by excessive drinking.
“We need the government to take action at a national level,” Ballard said of his efforts in the U.K., “to look at alcohol pricing and responsible advertising.
“But we also believe the Dry January campaign can really help individuals take a positive step toward cutting down their drinking and improve their health.”
Wagon’s already moving. Feel free to jump on.