Why ‘On the Dry’ alcohol abstinence campaign sends out the wrong message

‘It also confirms what I (as someone sober for more than 10 years) have long suspected: that we stigmatise sobriety far more than active addiction in Ireland’

In recent weeks, the Irish Heart Foundation has launched “On the Dry”, a fundraising campaign that asks people to abstain from alcohol this January. Several celebrities have signed up to remain alcohol-free throughout the month, and there is an online campaign to encourage public support and involvement.

Granted, this is all for an excellent cause, but there are, I believe, significant issues with the campaign, and on one level it is reinforcing negative stereotypes about sobriety and alcohol consumption in Ireland. It also confirms what I (as someone sober for more than 10 years) have long suspected: that we stigmatise sobriety far more than active addiction in Ireland.

The language of the campaign is full of words such as “dry” and “alcoholiday”, and abstaining from alcohol is presented as a daunting challenge worthy of sponsorship, like an attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. This raises interesting questions: what if someone cannot abstain from alcohol for the whole month? Does that mean life without alcohol is unbearable? And once January is over, is it back then to whatever levels of alcohol consumption the participant likes?

Surely the Irish Heart Foundation has an interest in making an ongoing impact on a person’s alcohol consumption?


‘Saints’ of sobriety

In tweets in advance of the promotion, the On the Dry account referred to people having one last “hurrah” before turning into “saints” at midnight on January 1st. The Twitter account made comments about participants swapping “stilettos for slippers” (because no one sober ever wears stilettos, right?) and asked if a well-known personality could “make it a whole month without alcohol”. The account also mentioned hangovers, asking if people felt a little “tender” or “wrecked” after the office party.

In general, the campaign can be read as supportive of an all-or-nothing approach to alcohol, with the idea of consumption in moderation failing to get a look-in.

It’s almost as if the Irish Heart Foundation has thrown in the towel and accepted the cultural norms about binge drinking, and is now piggybacking on that dysfunction to raise awareness for its important cause.

The thing is, this all-or-nothing approach has been tried many times before – by Fr Mathew, for example, in the mid 19th century – and has had limited long-term success. The On the Dry campaign is in danger of buttressing a sometimes all-too-easy stereotype in Ireland, that those choosing sobriety cannot have the craic and must be defined by the fact that they don’t consume alcohol socially.

‘On the Sly’

One of the more ridiculous and ill-thought-out aspects of the campaign is an element called “On the Sly”, whereby participants pay a nominal fee of €20 to buy themselves a day off from the campaign to enjoy a few drinks. The word “sly” suggests something hidden or deceitful, and, again, you have to ask whether this is the kind of message about alcohol that the Irish Heart Foundation should be endorsing. Depressingly, the website goes on: “Remember the challenge [is] to survive the entire month of January On the Dry, so please use only in the case of emergencies, you know, weddings, birthdays, Tuesdays. That sort of thing!”

The campaign is all the more frustrating because there appeared to be some movement in Irish society to have a more probing conversation about alcohol, following the backlash against Diageo’s now-scrapped Arthur’s Day event, for example, and the welcome manner in which the Union of Students in Ireland ended its partnership with the industry-funded group Drinkaware.

The fact that a campaign like this is run in Ireland says a lot about our relationship as a country with alcohol. It highlights how little questioning there is of the assumption that alcohol must form part of any and all social engagements.

It also reminds me of a conversation I had with a woman in a bar about a year after I stopped drinking. We were having what I thought was an engaging and amiable conversation when, towards the end of the night, she leaned in, whispering: “God, imagine how much craic you must have been when you were drinking.”

Talk about being hung out to dry . . .

Brian O'Connell is a journalist and broadcaster, whose book Wasted, published by Gill & Macmillan, examined Ireland's alcohol culture. Twitter: @oconnellbrian