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Dry January: A reflection on Britain’s drinking culture

A piece by Isabelle McIntyre

January is a month associated with fresh starts, new beginnings, and healthy habits. This year, I challenged myself to completing ‘Dry January’, in which you go from the 1st to 31st of January without a single drop of alcohol. The reactions to my resolution were mixed, to say the least. My parents were relieved at the prospect of my liver getting a well-deserved break after several months of heavy drinking during my first term at university. Friends were slightly more dismayed at the thought of how ‘boring’ I’d become over a month without clubbing and drunken gatherings.

Whilst I didn’t find it overly difficult to resist the temptation of alcohol this month, I was surprised at how hard it was to avoid. Almost all the invitations I got to social plans seemed to involve alcohol: wine with a nice meal, vodka mixers for girls night, pints at the pub with my family. Even the most wholesome and unassuming activities were injected with alcohol to make them seem more fun, like boozy hot chocolates at a festive market.

The omnipresent nature of alcohol in British society is what creates the ‘binge drinking culture’ that this country is famed for. In fact, it seems as though the nation prides itself on having alcoholic beverages and drinking habits engrained into our way of life. From after work drinks to birthday toasts, alcohol is readily available and almost inescapable. To say no risks being deemed a loser and even being excluded from social events. Yet the words ‘addiction’ and ‘problem’, which are quick to be paired with other substances like party drugs and nicotine, never seem to appear next to alcohol. The depiction of alcohol as a harmless social certainty has allowed it to become normalised to a concerning extent. For instance, university is almost synonymous with alcohol consumption – my own freshers week experience consisted of 7 nights of beer pong, supermarket’s own brand vodka, and various takes on ‘truth or drink’ as the prescribed methods to break the ice with new flatmates.

Of course, the widespread and insidious ways the industry works to increase drinking levels doesn’t help create an image of alcohol as a dangerous and addictive substance. Venues are carefully designed to make consumers reach for more alcohol: high tables for customers to stand around, thought to encourage higher consumption rates; smaller surface areas which taps into the lethargic human nature because, of course, the weight of a beer is too much to hold, so must be sunk; noisy surroundings because if chatting is made harder, then people will down drinks instead.

Despite strict advertising laws, a study found that 82% of young people recalled seeing at least one form of alcohol marketing in the past month - only yesterday, a bus drove past me advertising a limited-edition gin flavour. The largely unregulated arena of social media poses an even greater problem, considering that there is a direct link between exposure to alcohol advertising and the pattern of children drinking from an earlier age and in a riskier way. A YouGov report estimated that 1 in 4 Brits had tried alcohol at age 13 or younger, with anecdotal evidence painting an even more worrying picture that is at odds with the alcohol awareness campaigns that are drilled into us from primary school. My memories of WKD’s and Kopparberg’s on hand at early high school house parties leave me inclined to trust the figures on this one…

Yet the issue of alcohol consumption is not a new one, but rather one that has been around almost as long as civilisation itself: ancient records show that Sumerians in Mesopotamia brewed, drank and regulated beer as early as 3000 BC. In England, laws were introduced to control the excessive intake of alcohol in the 1600’s, and the temperance movement to curtail the recreational use of alcohol was in full swing by the 1800’s. The increase in the last century has been explained through several phenomena, from the ‘post-war pub boom’ promoting lager and beer, to the ‘rave wave’ in the 1990’s popularising caffeinated canned drinks. James Nicholls undertakes a fascinating analysis of alcohol use in his book ‘The Politics of Alcohol’, discussing the way alcohol is a prism through which society’s debates surrounding the moral status of the economy are focused. Interestingly, he points out that today’s approach to alcohol is at odds to the long-term historical tendency – instead of something to be controlled, the alcohol economy is now actively cultivated and encouraged.

In my opinion, the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic have also exacerbated the problem in the last two years. The long and dull lockdowns had a large proportion of the population drinking at home, be it out of plain old boredom or out of anxiety about the impending apocalypse. Changes reported included drinking more days a week than usual', 'drinking alone', 'drinking more alcohol in a single session', and 'having a drink earlier in the day'. I too, found myself engaging in alcohol infused zoom quizzes and down a pint challenges to pass the time and fill the hole that lockdown had created in our lives. Experts anticipate that these hazardous habits are likely to stay at high levels post lockdown, for months and even years to come.

Is it any wonder that people drink so heavily and have done throughout time? With modern society the way it is, alcohol can be an escape from the stresses of day-to-day life and the harsher realities of human existence. This idea is supported by countless research into the link between alcoholism and unemployment, poverty, illness, grief, and other adverse life events. Indeed, this dependency on alcohol as a coping mechanism for suffering is one of the routes down a slippery slope to addiction and maladaptive behaviours. In England today there are an estimated 602,391 dependent drinkers, yet only 18% are receiving treatment.

Compared to the scary statistics that are so readily available nowadays, my month of teetotalism has actually been quite enjoyable. On a practical level, sticking to non-alcoholic drinks has saved me a lot of money - I had 3 rounds of mocktails for the same price as a singular cocktail one evening, not to mention the club tickets, taxi fares and kebab shop premiums I didn’t have to pay for in January. The physical health improvements were small, but I did feel more energised and supposedly my blood pressure and risk of various diseases has lowered.

Most noticeably however, was the mental effects. I was in a far better mood without the crippling hangxiety from a night out, and more motivated to tackle my end of term essays than I think I would have been otherwise. The smug satisfaction of telling people I wasn’t drinking at the minute also boosted my ego no end! On reflection, I enjoyed social occasions just as much, with the added advantage of being able to drive home at the end of the night and wake up fresh as a daisy the next day.

Whilst I’m looking forward to a proper night out come February, I highly recommend everyone to take a break from time to time to revaluate their relationship with alcohol. It has been eye-opening to see just how pervasive alcohol is in this country, and the ominous way limbic capitalism operates to profit off our innate addictive tendencies. Alcohol can be a great addition to life when it is your choice to drink it, not society’s.

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