Thinking of getting off the booze for a month to take part in FebFast or Dry July? You might want to listen to a mental health expert who claims it could do you more harm than good.
Ian Hamilton, a lecturer at York University in the UK, said that while most people can stop drinking alcohol without any immediate harm, heavy drinkers risk withdrawal and serious symptoms such as seizures which should be managed by health professionals.
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How to booze less for longer
While campaigns like Dry July and Feb Fast get you going, it can be difficult to form a habit from your healthy month. Here are six tips to help you drink less in the long run.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, the substance abuse expert said there was also no reliable evidence that anyone would derive long-term benefit from a month of abstinence.
People may even think a month off gives them permission to indulge in dangerous binges when they've completed the challenge, he said.
Professor Hamilton concluded that the campaigns, which often encourage fundraising for charities, were "parched of evidence" for positive health benefits and could have unintended, dangerous, consequences.
But Ian Gilmore, a physician and honorary professor at Liverpool University, said the campaigns were not aimed at heavy drinkers, who are advised to see their GPs. And he said an independent evaluation of "Dry January" in the UK suggested 67 per cent of participants drank less six months after the event.
Professor Hamilton said the trouble with such evaluations was that research showed people underestimated their own drinking when surveyed about it.
"Many of us can be economical with the truth when it comes to how much we drink," he wrote.
Three Australian experts in alcohol use said they generally supported the campaigns even if they had not been rigorously evaluated.
Two years after taking part in Dry July, Emily Marks says she drinks less during the week and possibly on weekends, too. 'I think the benefits probably outweigh the harms,' she says. Photo: Wayne Taylor
"So long as gimmicks and promotions like this aim to complement effective prevention policies and evidence-based public education, they will do no harm and are a reminder that we all need to think carefully about the way we drink," said Mike Daube, Professor of Health Policy at Curtin University.
Professor Wayne Hall of Queensland University said he doubted the campaigns would reach heavy drinkers who need medical assistance to withdraw.
Professor Hall said they were more likely to appeal to the larger number of Australians who are not alcoholics but drink to intoxication, putting them at risk of accidents, fights, falls and inappropriate social behaviour they have good reason to regret.
"I think the possible downsides are so remote and the risks so low, that the potential benefits, although modest, are worth it," he said.
Professor Anthony Shakeshaft of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of NSW, said the whole debate was "an evidence-free zone" which should prompt a study of police, ambulance and emergency department activity during dry campaign months and other months to see if there are any notable trends.
"Without wishing to spoil everyone's participation in a dry month with droll science, let's measure the impacts more carefully and then we'll know," he said.
Brett Macdonald, the chief executive of Dry July in Australia, said the campaign website advised people who were worried about their drinking to talk to their GP.
Mr Macdonald said a survey of 3000 participants carried out last August found 65 per cent believed they had reduced their drinking in the month after their participation.
He said many also reported feeling healthier, sleeping better, and becoming more productive as a result of their participation.
Emily Marks, a telecommunications worker in Melbourne, said she could understand concerns about heavy drinkers, but thought Dry July was great for someone such as her who was used to drinking a glass of wine every night with dinner, and more on weekends.
After being anxious about how she might cope at first, Ms Marks found she was capable of enjoying herself while out with other drinkers and got more out of her weekends.
"I learnt how to not feel like an idiot without a drink in my hand… And I had so many hours in my day. I suddenly discovered Sundays!" she said.
Two years on from participating in Dry July and raising money for a breast cancer charity, Ms Marks said she drank less during the week and possibly on weekends, too.
"I think the benefits probably outweigh the harms," she said.
"You learn a lot about yourself."