"Frankly, it's a disaster."
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
People trying to avoid contracting cirrhosis by abstaining from drinking during January have become almost as ubiquitous as those getting trashed and fighty every night of December. Dry January, which began as something of a PR stunt by the charity Alcohol Concern back in 2013, has now become a British national bloodsport, forcing everyone to feel a bit shitty about themselves: either for not drinking, or for still drinking, or for trying to stop drinking and realizing they couldn't even last a week. Last year an estimated two million people gave up booze in the UK during January 2015, and with the drive now heavily funded by the government, that number is expected to be even higher this year.
At the same time, Public Health England (PHE) has just released a revised set of alcohol consumption guidelines that advise drinkers not to consume more than 14 units (a bottle and a half of wine) per week, as opposed to the old recommendation of 21 units per week for women, and 28 for men. "The vast majority of the population can reduce health risks further if they reduce drinking below the guideline levels, or do not drink at all," say the guidelines, in a sentence that'll strike fear into the hearts of anyone who routinely sinks five pints on a Monday evening just to make the train home a bit less bleak.
Obviously, nobody thinks binge-drinking is healthy, but festive over-indulgence is positively encouraged as supermarkets suggest we bulk-buy cava in December. We're given the trope to conform to, then admonished for it the following month. PHE claims that sales of alcohol in licensed public premises rose by 142% on the last Friday before Christmas in 2014—a day now dubbed Booze Black Friday. But if binge-drinking culture is a goldmine for the UK's tens of thousands of bars and pubs, what's Dry January?
"Frankly, it's a disaster," says Ben Walton, owner of "informal neighborhood hangout" Ben's Canteen, which has premises in Battersea and Earlsfield. "Spend per head is at least £10 [$14] less than it might be at another time of year. We sell so much tea and cola, and so little wine."
Ben's business isn't as vulnerable as others because it also serves food, but the change in atmosphere for him is palpable. "I feel that people not only restrict their indulgences but also their personalities," he says. "It feels a bit more austere."
That austerity is felt in a more literal sense for Walton's staff. "We have to cut back on hours and numbers, and nobody thinks of that when they boldly declare they're giving up the hard stuff for a month," he says.
At more traditional pubs, where there are no food revenues to fall back on, things are tougher. Frank Murphy, of Glasgow watering hole The Pot Still, sees Dry January as the latest in an onslaught of campaigns to get people off booze. "It started with Macmillan and Go Sober for October, which stirred my ire. Then Cancer Research copied the idea with Dryathlon." It seems hard to begrudge charities an opportunity to raise money and inspire people to moderate their drinking, but in Murphy's eyes, Dry January and similar campaigns are less concerned with promoting a healthy lifestyle than they are with targeting a receptive demographic for easy fundraising. "It's a method of reducing alcohol consumption in the part of the population where drinking is not a problem," he says.
Public Health England, which funded Dry January's marketing and PR, does of course fund a range of anti-alcohol programs which target different kinds of drinkers, from serious alcoholics to children. But Dry January does appear to make a difference to people's drinking habits. A recent study by the University of Sussex and Alcohol Concern found participants' drinking habits became healthier in the long-term. That is still a worry to the traditional British pub, already closing at a rate of 29 per week in 2015. This year, the British Beer and Pub Association is making a concerted effort to "encourage people to the pub during dry January", with its chief executive suggesting pubs promote alcohol's "protective effect on a number of health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and Parkinson's".
It all seems to be done with disregard for people trying to be healthier, but Murphy believes that is missing the point. "January in a rural pub is more likely to be hand-to-mouth than any other time of year. The longer these sobriety campaigns continue, the more rural pubs, inns, and hotels will close. When a village loses its last pub, it becomes somewhere you drive through, a dormitory rather than a community."
While independent pubs appear to suffer the worst, the great British institution that is JD Wetherspoon is a little more stoic about short-term abstinence. "Staff hours are not cut," their spokesperson Eddie Gershon assured me. "If some people wish to stop drinking or drink less in January, that's their decision. However, people enjoy going to pubs and that is not going to stop because of a campaign. For the last 15 years, all Wetherspoon pubs hold a January Sale, where a number of drinks—alcoholic, non-alcoholic, coffee, etc—are reduced in price. This is always very popular." Chris Hill, owner of Leeds wine shop Latitude Wines, says he also benefits from temporarily lowering prices, but admits he does notice a reduction in business.
"I find the whole Dry January thing a weird phenomenon," he says. "I've worked in licensed retail for almost three decades and January has always been a quiet month—but now, it has a new name. A few years ago I had too much stock coming out at Christmas and did our first January sale, mainly to free up enough cash to pay the VAT bill. Given that many people do cut down on booze in January, it proved surprisingly successful. Our regulars now expect a sale every year." Not everyone has the luxury of being able to put on a sale, though. Felix Cohen, a mixologist and the brains behind Manhattans Project, a pop-up cocktail bar in East London, says that "there just isn't the inventory to clear out," and echoes Walton's comments on bar staff being hit the hardest. "We staff less, which is one of the hardest things, because we want to make sure employees can still pay their rent," he says.
However you're experiencing your own particular brand of shame and failure this Dry January, it's undeniable that the pub and bar industry is one of the most important in the UK, with 1.3 million people currently employed in the "night trade." Britain's livers might be suffering, but so are people's livelihoods.
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