One Year No Beer: a lockdown lifeline

Looking to change your relationship with alcohol? Peter Ranscombe reports on a Scottish firm’s online programme.

FOR so many of us who have been staying safe at home with no exposure to the coronavirus, it’s been a lockdown of memes.

Memes about face coverings, memes about zoom quizzes, memes about TikTok challenges.

One set of memes has perhaps struck a louder chord than the others – the ones about the clink of glass bottles when we put our recycling boxes out onto the pavement.

Lockdown has shone a very bright light on our relationship with alcohol.

Whether it’s home schooling, working from home or returning home after a hard day as a keyworker, the topsy-turvy nature of life under lockdown has provided excuse after excuse for us to open another bottle or pour another glass.

Yet not everyone’s solution has been to reach for a drink – a survey by Alcohol Focus Scotland and Alcohol Change UK found that, while 29% of Scots have begun drinking more during lockdown, the same proportion of our population has either cut back on the booze or stopped drinking alcohol altogether.

One observer who’s noticed a difference is Ruari Fairbairns, who founded online toolkit One Year No Beer (OYNB) with his friend Andy Ramage in 2015.

“The reaction during lockdown has been very positive – we had just shy of 8,000 people sign up in a week,” Fairburns told me.

Going into lockdown, Edinburgh-based OYNB had more than 70,000 members worldwide, so that growth has been significant.

The company runs 28-, 90- and 365-day challenges for its members to take a break from alcohol.

It aims to change people’s habits and gives them support through emails, videos and online groups.

Towards the start of the lockdown, it offered its 28-day challenge for free to “NHS staff, frontline support workers, all key workers, the unemployed and anyone who needs additional help in taking a break from alcohol”.

The 28-day challenge normally costs £59 per person to delivery – through the cost of the coaching and hosting the online materials – but OYNB’s employees capped their salaries at £2,000 a month so the service could be offered for free.

OYNB points to a study led by Professor Kevin Moore, a liver expert at the Royal Free Hospital in London, which was published in the British Medical Journal’s BMJ Open journal in 2018.

Moore found that 90% of participants who abstained from alcohol for a month had lower levels of cancer-aiding chemicals in their blood.

They also saw “significant” improvements in their body weight and blood pressure.

While the study recognised its own weaknesses – particularly in how the test subjects were recruited – it added weight to the argument behind movements such as “Dry January” and “Sober October”.

Participants on OYNB’s own 90-day challenge have reported benefits including “improved sleep”, “reduced anxiety” and “lost weight”.

“At the beginning of the lockdown, we saw people were drinking more, but now there are different camps – which is a reaction to the different emotions that people are feeling, like fear, grief and loss – with some turning to old coping mechanisms like having a drink and others out there pounding the pavements for exercise,” Fairburns said.

“As lockdown starts to eases, we’re expecting to see people who have been drinking more start to think about their relationship with alcohol.”

Check-out Peter Ranscombe’s reviews of alcohol-free drinks on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.