Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Fake Science, Drunkbaiting and Fundraising: The Dryathlon is Upon Us

Rarely have I written, spiked, deleted, and rewritten an entry to this degree. I started writing about this very emotive topic back in January and almost hit “publish” but pulled it at the last minute. But now, I think, is as good a time as any to talk about the attempts by charities to stop us drinking.

Previous iterations of this entry featured furious spleen-venting about the September Dryathlon, Sober October, Dryvember and Dry January, in which I furiously popped off shots at these institutions, and they ran LONG. One of them was over 3,000 words. Nobody needs to read all that bile.

I think it’s weird to push abstinence from alcohol as a mitzvah while dodging the fact that spending a third of a year “dry” is probably going to have a detrimental effect on the hospitality and drinks industry. The whole movement reminds me of the scene from the film Clerks, when a chewing gum salesman whips up a crowd into throwing cigarettes at the “cancer merchant” running the till. These drives towards fundraising self-punishment (broken up from a clear run by December, because of course Jesus still wants us to get pissed) don’t acknowledge the fact that they’re taking money out of peoples’ pockets. Because, hey, alcohol gives you cancer, right?

This, though, isn’t my main beef with these movements.

My problem with it is the shame factor, the appropriation of clinical terminology, and the kinda-sorta way some of these movements suggest that people are kinda-sorta alcoholics, but in the same breath suggest that instead of seeking real help they should just raise money for them.

I used to work at an addiction service, and many of the things that bother me about these movements come from this experience. The use of the word “detox” raises my hackles. It’s up there with people calling themselves “OCD” because they’re a bit neat. It cheapens the fact that alcohol detoxification is a clinical process which can be dangerous if not done right. There’s a difference between easing alcohol out of a patient’s system without them having potentially fatal withdrawal seizures, and not drinking for a bit while sipping green tea and eating rabbit food.

The website for Cancer Research’s Dryathlon, which started a few days ago, says that people who take part will gain a “fresh approach” to alcohol consumption. It says that you can improve your health through taking part in their challenge. It also boasts that:

One way Dryathlon could help is by getting you out of bad habits, like automatically reaching for a glass of wine when you get in from work without really thinking about whether you want one

I can’t emphasise this enough. If you ever find yourself automatically drinking alcohol without really thinking about whether you want to or not you don’t need a charity sobriety marathon. You need to see your doctor.

If you think alcohol is damaging your health, you need a doctor. If you need to get a fresh approach to alcohol consumption, because you think you have a problem, you don’t need to take part in some fundraising extravaganza. You need to speak to someone qualified and you need to engage with the mechanisms designed to identify and treat addiction, not the mechanisms designed to raise charity money.

Stopping drinking for a month to raise money for charity isn’t a valid treatment for addiction.

The Sober October movement says similarly non-scientific things about detoxification:

The goal of detoxing is to cleanse the body of toxins however the truth is our body is detoxing all the time, via our skin, liver, kidneys and bowel. Even if you’re very health conscious, detoxifying once in a while is still important to give your body a rest from chemicals.

This gem was vomited onto a keyboard by someone representing a health spa, who clearly doesn’t know that chemicals are in everything. Everything is made of them. If you’re scared of chemicals you must be in constant fucking fear of literally everything in the universe.

Hail Hydra

My feelings about this quackery are made complex by the fact that Cancer Research and MacMillan Nurses, for whom the Dryathlon and Sober October respectively raise money, are engaged in good deeds. Cancer care is a lofty cause and it’s a shame that in trying to help this lofty cause they’re also, to varying degrees, damaging the public perception of alcohol addiction. One of the problems with alcohol culture in the UK is that it’s a taboo subject, or at least the positive aspects of it are taboo. We can’t advertise it in a fun or creative way, we can’t discuss it in a positive light. When the only discourse allowed is negative you very quickly shut down any useful discussion of an issue.

And, speaking of useful discussions of the issues surrounding alcohol, I give you Dryvember and Dry January.

Dryvember takes place in November and is ran by the Alcohol Education Trust. It’s billed as a “pre-tox” before the festive season. The Trust, which I had never heard of until I sat down to write this, seems to mainly work towards teaching children about alcohol. Its mission statement:

Our vision is for young people to enter adulthood having a healthy relationship with alcohol. We engage pupils before they begin drinking, help them build resilience skills, know how to avoid risky situations and learn how to look after themselves and each other. The average age of a first whole drink in the UK is age 13 – far too young, and usually at home.

The Alcohol Education Trust says it teaches teachers to teach about alcohol. It’s basically an anti-alcohol pressure group. And it has some great tips for people wanting to “stay on the wagon”.

The Dryvember website says that to distract yourself from drinking you could take up a hobby! Or maybe go for a walk! Or do house repairs or have a bath!

If you need to do stuff to stop yourself from drinking you, once again, need a doctor. If you have to distract yourself from alcohol you may well have an addiction problem and you need to speak to someone with training and expertise, not learn to sing or take an exercise class.

Alcohol Concern’s Dry January (which was billed as Dryanuary last year, and was countered by the #Tryanuary hashtag which saw beer enthusiasts spinning positivity off from it by encouraging the sampling of new beers) is another campaign that raises money for an alcohol pressure group. Alcohol Concern seems to do very little positive with regards to the country’s alcohol problems. It barracks for minimum per-unit pricing, it asks youths if they think alcohol advertising is aimed at them, demands that alcohol labels feature health warnings and wants tougher rules on the advertising of alcohol. It wants to make it tougher for pubs to get licenses. It at least campaigns for better training for health and social care practitioners in alcohol related issues, and more access to addiction services, but it does this while pretty much wanting to smash the drinks industry.

And again, it drops some really sketchy advice about problem drinking:

If evening drinks when you get home from work are your weakness, why not come up with an alcohol-free post-work ritual

This bears repeating a third time. If you have a drink problem go to a doctor.

While preying on peoples' fears of alcoholism, Alcohol Concern buries a disclaimer at the bottom of the Dry January landing page, reading:

Please note that this is not a medical detox programme and should not be attempted by people with an alcohol dependency problem. 
Please contact Alcohol Concern for more details.

I'm glad that clears this up, but surely "contact your doctor or indeed anybody in the medical profession, and not a charity bent on pulling the guts out of the drinks industry" would be a better closing sentence.

Alcohol Concern carries a big stick

I don’t think these charity sobriety challenges will destroy the drinks industry, or damage beer culture beyond repair. But I do think they damage the discourse about alcohol addiction. They manage to earnestly want to get people off the sauce, yet also make the treatment of alcoholism as simple as drinking some dandelion tea or going for a run. There’s a strong dissonance between campaigning for better care for problem drinkers while also wanting them to stand up and do tricks, and even partially aiming a sobriety challenge at people with drink problems  or who think they MIGHT have drink problems is shockingly cavalier.

Alcohol addiction is a serious issue but it’s not one that should be earnestly discussed and then followed with a cheeky wink to the camera or a throwaway line about how James Bond doesn’t need a Martini to be awesome.  Alcohol addiction is something that is fixed by doctors, not boxes of tea or posting #AlcoFreeSelfies on Instagram.

I’m not a Scrooge. I’m not a monster. I’m glad people are raising money for Cancer Research and MacMillan Nurses. I do, though, think it’s a shame that charities seem to both prey on peoples’ fears and insecurities while also trivialising the addictions they fear they might have.

Surely there are better ways.


  1. There are different fundraising projects out there. Choose the one that is very beneficial to others.

  2. I've really enjoyed reading this article, you've including some great tips and ideas! I've recently discovered Listen Ltd Fundraisingand the amazing work they do. They have helped raise over £150 million on behalf of charities, you should check them out.