Alcohol consumption is a dose-dependent1, leading risk factor for preventable cases of cancer2, linked with many other chronic and acute conditions3. Restrictions introduced as a result of COVID-19 in the UK have impacted on drinking behaviour with rises in increasing and higher risk drinking (defined by standard cut-offs of ≥ 8 on the full Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test4)5–7 and heavy episodic drinking8. As such, reducing alcohol consumption and associated harms is a public health priority9. This study reports the possible impact of COVID-19 restrictions on engagement with a national campaign, Dry January, which aims to help people in the UK reduce their alcohol consumption. Here, we explore the level of participation in Dry January between 2020 and 2021, and potential shifts in the sociodemographic and drinking characteristics of those taking part.
Dry January is a behaviour change programme created and run by the UK charity Alcohol Change UK (ACUK) that encourages people to abstain from alcohol for the month of January and change habitual drinking patterns over the longer term10. Participants in Dry January can use an app, Try Dry to track alcohol units, calories and money saved, to track progress and to set future goals. Participants can also access daily coaching emails and peer support. Studies evaluating the impact of Dry January participation have found evidence of reported benefits to physical health11,12, mental health and well-being11, as well as significant reductions in drinking days per week, drinks per typical drinking day and frequency of drunkenness six months after January13. Amongst participants of FebFast, a similar month-long abstinence challenge in Australia, 51% reported drinking less frequently four months after participation14.
Lockdowns were first introduced in many countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including England, Scotland and Wales in March 2020. All non-essential stores and licenced premises were closed making social gathering and the opportunity to drink alcohol outside the home limited. While pubs, clubs and bars were closed, people could still purchase alcohol for home consumption and home alcohol expenditure increased in the first lockdown15. Evidence suggests that the first lockdown had a polarising impact on drinking patterns7,8 with 26% of drinkers drinking less and 26% drinking more7. The prevalence of increasing and higher risk drinking increased significantly with 1.8 times greater odds of increasing and higher risk drinking during lockdown relative to pre-lockdown6. As well as leading to increased alcohol consumption, the first lockdown also led to an increase in self-reported alcohol reduction attempts by increasing and higher risk drinkers (28.5% during lockdown vs. 15.3% pre-lockdown)6.
A third lockdown, announced on the 4th January and commencing on the 6th January, coincided with the first week of Dry January in 2021. The impact of a third lockdown on alcohol consumption and reduction attempts may not have been the same as the first lockdown. A number of health behaviours, including alcohol consumption, changed over the course of the pandemic and in response to changing restrictions16. Deteriorating socio-economic, personal circumstances and mental health17–19, could have led to substantial disengagement from the Dry January campaign. On the other hand, the pandemic could have refocussed attention on longer-term health and encouraged engagement with the campaign.
Beyond changes in the prevalence of participation in Dry January, the sociodemographic and drinking characteristics of participants may have changed. In previous years, being female and of more advantaged socio-economic position was associated with greater likelihood of participating in Dry January20. However, sociodemographic groups have been differentially affected by lockdown7,8,16 and this has been reflected in drinking behaviour. Being younger7, female5,7 and of a lower socio-economic position5 were all associated with increased drinking in lockdown. Deterioration in psychological wellbeing and being a parent was associated with increases in the frequency of heavy episodic drinking 8. Those groups drinking more in lockdown may be more likely to participate in Dry January if they are consciously aware of their increased drinking and are motivated to cut down. Conversely, the reasons leading to increased consumption may make these drinkers less likely to engage with a month of abstention. Understanding more about how the composition of Dry January participants changed during lockdown, may inform health communications and policy decisions around provision and targeting of support for alcohol reduction.
In this paper, we use data from two sources, i) the Alcohol Toolkit Study (ATS), a representative population survey in England, and ii) the database behind the Try Dry app, a freely available app built and run by ACUK. We compare the proportion of and sociodemographic and drinking characteristics of individuals who report a Dry January-motivated reduction attempt in the ATS in England and users of the Try Dry app based in the United Kingdom, in 2021 relative to 2020. We aim to address the following research questions:
1. Among increasing and higher risk drinkers in England, has there been a change in the prevalence of Dry January-motivated alcohol reduction attempts in 2021 compared with 2020?
2. Are drinking and sociodemographic characteristics associated with Dry January-motivated alcohol reduction attempts amongst increasing and higher risk drinkers in England, and are any associations moderated by year?
3. Has there been a change in the number of users of the Try Dry app in the UK in January 2021 compared with January 2020?
4. Were there changes in the drinking and sociodemographic characteristics of users of the Try Dry app in the UK in January 2021 relative to January 2020?