Does Dry January signal a shift on alcohol?

Despite its good intentions, Prohibition failed to impose sobriety on the public. But popular movements such as Dry January and Sober Curious now encourage individuals to experience the benefits of an alcohol-free life for themselves.

Michael Spooneybarger/Reuters/File
Empty beer cans litter the beach during spring break festivities in Panama City Beach, Fla.

A century ago this month well-meaning reformers managed to ban the purchase or transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Their high aim was to eliminate the drunkenness that had led to so much human misery.

The 18th Amendment that brought Prohibition stayed in effect only 13 years until repealed in 1933. Though the law produced many good outcomes (Henry Ford noted that absenteeism on his automobile assembly lines dropped dramatically) it has largely been seen as a failed attempt at governmental social engineering. The reformers had quickly lost the public relations battle: Drinking in defiance of the ban became a show of personal freedom, an exuberant way to defy authority. So much for that noble effort to end a social scourge.

But 100 years later the abstinence movement seems to be rising from the opposite direction, welling up, one individual at a time, in people who sense that drinking isn’t making their lives better or happier, but rather worse. 

The “Dry January” movement began in Britain seven years ago. The idea was to make the first month of the year a time to experiment with a life without alcohol. Another anti-drinking meme called Sober Curious extends the concept to any time of year. 

Last year 47% of Americans said they were making an effort to cut their consumption of alcohol, according to research firm Nielsen. That figure rose to 66% among millennials.

Suddenly nonalcoholic drinks (“mocktails” and zero-alcohol beer) are in fashion. Even some alcohol-free nightspots have sprung up. 

Warnings about long-term effects on physical and mental health from alcohol use have been issued for many years. But they’ve failed to have much influence on what is a day-to-day, live-in-the-moment decision. 

This time around people are finding plenty of immediate good effects to be a persuasive reason to quit. “I actually have more fun without alcohol,” one recovering alcoholic recently told CBS News.

“I noticed I was sleeping better, I had more energy, I felt less anxious. It was easier to stick to my healthy eating goals,” a Dry January participant is quoted as saying on the WebMD website. Eventually, the woman adds, she realized she didn’t even want to drink anymore.

The costs to society of drinking are well known. The movement to stop drunk driving continues to spotlight the tragic results of alcohol abuse. The link between alcohol abuse and violent attacks on women has been well established.

So, do Dry January and Sober Curious signal that a deep and lasting change in public attitudes is emerging? Will they lead to wider recognition that the joys of life can be celebrated, and actually experience more deeply, without inebriation? 

That shift in thought would do more good than any new law reformers might ever devise.

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