Comment: Dry January just makes alcohol a taboo - and all the more tempting
It's that time again - 'dry January' - and if you drink regularly, it might be daunting. The problem is that, what with alcohol being such a huge part of our culture and social life, it has become a routine habit for many people. Most of us find it very hard to give drink up for a whole month, all the while arguing that we aren't dependent on it.
But what happens then when your fast is over and you're all set to drink yourself into oblivion? Maybe you're terrified of that first glass and don't even want it in case you take a sip and wake up on the dance floor waving your bra over your head. There's that sense of: "F*** it, I've had a long/tough/amazing month and I deserve to go a bit wild."
I'm not criticising anyone aiming to stay dry for the next month, but our relationship with alcohol is far more complex than just staying sober for 31 days. We all know that drinking isn't the healthiest of pastimes. We know it makes us want to eat kebabs at 2am. We know it's the cause of our Sunday evening remorse and we know it's the only reason we keep Berocca in the house.
In Ireland, we live for our booze. According to Alcohol Ireland, per-capita alcohol consumption in 2015 was 10.93 litres of pure alcohol per person over 15. The Health Research Board (HRB) has pointed out that our per-capita alcohol consumption in 2015 is equal to 41 litres of vodka, 116 bottles of wine or 445 pints of beer per person aged 15 and over. The HRB also found that if you exclude the one-fifth of the adult population who abstain from alcohol completely, the 2015 figures can be adjusted upwards to 46 bottles of vodka, 130 bottles of wine, or 498 pints of beer. On top of this we're drinking more than ever. Alcohol consumption in Ireland almost tripled over four decades between 1960 (4.9 litres) and 2001 (14.3 litres).
We relish the idea of ourselves as lovable hedonists, always up for the craic and a jar. Nevertheless, the past half-century has seen a change in alcohol's status, propelling it from luxury to staple. Tipsy is the new normal: be it one at home, at large or at leisure. Wrongly, we live in a drinking country where friendships are forged over a bottle. We feel that we need alcohol to relax, to socialise, to date, to have sex.
I'm not knocking dry January. Recently staff at the British magazine 'New Scientist' decided to test the results of an alcohol-free month, using themselves as guinea pigs. The findings of their small but fascinating study suggest that it's beneficial. Even their blood sugar and cholesterol levels improved after one sober month.
But I think it's important to figure out why you're toying with temporary sobriety. If you want to join your friends on a bandwagon challenge, join away. If you're doing a dry January because you're concerned about your over-drinking, then abstaining for a gimmicky period of time seems questionable to me.
Treating alcohol as a forbidden substance has not taught our populace to consume alcohol responsibly. Studies have shown that kids who learned to drink with meals from their parents have lower rates of alcohol problems. Yet our high drinking age encourages kids to have their first drinks illegally, at unchaperoned parties or in parks. Raising taxes and imposing curfews has done little.
We binge. The National Alcohol Diary Survey 2014 found that more than half (54pc) of 18 to 75-year-old drinkers were classified as harmful drinkers, which equates to 1.35 million harmful drinkers in Ireland. Some 75pc of all alcohol consumed in Ireland in 2013 was done so as part of a binge drinking session.
From a physical standpoint, evidence has continued to accumulate that moderate drinkers have reduced rates of stroke, heart disease, kidney cancer, diabetes, and other ailments compared with both lifetime abstainers and those who used to drink but stopped completely. Aside from a slight increase in breast cancer risk, most of the negative health consequences of drinking (liver disease, oesophageal and stomach cancer, mental illness) are confined to heavy drinkers.
Just like diets often just make us fatter, detoxing often leads to an epic retox. We should be encouraging a more healthy, year-round approach to drinking, not perpetuating a cycle of denial and binge. Neither binging nor abstaining equals moderation. Moderation is the tricky beast we need to find.
Moderation is the wavering middle. I think about this when people talk about New Year's resolutions every year, because the best ones are nearly impossible to account for.
They're the mini-resolutions like do better work and be a better listener and just be healthier. The middle is elusive. Aim for the middle.