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Why science says doing Dry January is good for you, even if you don’t quite succeed

Even failed attempts at not drinking can have positive results. 

This month, according to a YouGov poll at least, 3.1 million Britons are attempting Dry January (the other 60 million are making unhelpful faces at those attempting Dry January). Unsurprisingly for a campaign that is only five years old, there is little research on its effectiveness, and the few studies in existence have obvious limitations.

The most notable such research was led by Dr Richard De Vrisser, a psychologist at Sussex University. Of the 857 men and women who signed up to the campaign's official website, De Vrisser found that even those who failed to stick to their well-intended vows of a month off alcohol experienced reduced drinking throughout the rest of the year, and that it was “unlikely to result in undesirable rebound effects”. 

De Vrisser did note that the study focused only on those who were motivated enough to actually sign up to the Dry January website (by definition more motivated than most). Those who responded to survey questions six months after the fact were also more likely to have successfully engaged in Dry January.

Still, at a time when governments are trying to reduce heavy drinking, it is arguably money well spent. In 2016, Public Health England spent £500,000 marketing Dry January, a campaign that resulted in five million Britons attempting the month without alcohol amounting to just 50p per person. 

And previous research has shown that drinking less is linked to a better mental health, a lower risk of cancer and essentially a better everything... well, everything except a better social life. 

A recent study in Australia investigated the difficulties of saying no to alcohol in a society that rarely rewards such behaviour. It looked at 16 subjects between the ages of 25 and 65 who had, within the last few months, decided to reduce the amount they drink. These people reported constantly having to justify themselves, resulting in them disguising the fact they weren’t drinking, and leaving social situations earlier. 

Intriguingly, the study also found that “a self-imposed constraint such as taking part in a fundraiser was accepted as a reason to avoid alcohol”. This is how Dry January works, with participants encouraged to fundraise for charities including Crisis and the British Liver Trust.

One of the most common arguments against Dry January is that, much like a detox, it is temporary, excessive and doomed to fail.

Yet Sir Ian Gilmore, the former President of the Royal College of Physicians and current Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, considers taking part to be a good way for an individual to reset their relationship with booze: “Most people don’t intend to become teetotal for life and see an end in sight, but they are also pleased to realise that there is a life (even a social life) without alcohol”.

Gilmore compares it to the 5:2 diet. Drawing on his own experience, he says he found the diet easy because he knew he “could suffer hardship one day knowing that I could eat ‘normally’ the next day. It is not a prescriptive lifelong change. I think there is something of the same in Dry January.”

If the science doesn’t convince you to be less judgemental of your temporarily teetotal friends (numerous studies now show how little significance we give facts when faced with changing our minds), maybe this will persuade you:

Last week, Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain rallied against Dry January. He said that it was excessive and that people should just drink less, like he does and enjoy "a glass of fine Bordeaux”.

Is it just me, or does it sound like Morgan's friends are just happy to have an excuse to avoid him and his fine Bordeaux?

I'll drink to that (in February). 

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Can Britain’s new powers to investigate unexplained wealth prevent real-life McMafias?

The government is waking up to the fact that global criminals are fond of London. 

The BBC’s McMafia, a story of high-flying Russian mobsters and international money launderers woven into the fabric of London, ended this month. Despite the dramatic TV twists, the subject matter has its basis in reality. As a barrister dealing with cases that involve Russia and former Soviet states, my experience is that politicians and business people use the apparatus of the state to put rivals out of business by any means possible.

In McMafia, previously straight-laced fund manager Alex Godman (played by James Norton) begins transferring money under the cover of a new investment fund. With a click of a button, he can transfer a shady partner’s money around the world. As the Paradise Papers underlined, money can indeed be hidden through the use of complex company structures registered in different countries, many of which do not easily disclose the names of owners and beneficiaries. One company can be owned by another, so the owner of Company A (in Panama) might be Company B (in the Cayman Islands) which is owned by Company C (in the Seychelles) which owns property in London. To find out who owns the property, at least three separate jurisdictions must be contacted and international co-operation arranged – and that’s a simple structure. Many companies will have multiple owners, making it even more difficult to work out who the actual beneficiary is.

I represent individuals before the UK extradition and immigration courts. They are bankers, business people and politicians who have fled persecution in Russia and Ukraine or face fabricated charges in their home country and face extradition or deportation and will often be tortured or put on show trial if we lose. Their opponents will deploy spies, who may pay visits to co-defendants in Russia for “psychological work” (aka torture). Sometimes the threat of torture or ruin against a person’s family is enough to make them confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I have seen family members of my clients issued with threats of explicit violence and the implicit destruction of their life. Outside their close relatives’ homes in Russia, cars have been set on fire. Violence and intimidation are part of the creed that permeates the country’s business and political rivalries.

As in McMafia, London has long played a bit part in these rivalries, but the UK government has been slow to act. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent turned defector, was killed in London using Polonium 210 – a radioactive substance put into a cup of tea. Although Russian state involvement was suspected from the beginning, the UK government tried to block certain material being released into the public domain, leading his family to complain that the UK’s relations with Russia were being put before the truth. In 2016, a decade after his death, the inquiry finally delivered its verdict: there was a “strong probability” Litvinenko was murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. Yet in the same breath as condemning the act, David Cameron’s spokeswoman said the UK would have to “weigh carefully” the incident against “the broader need to work with Russia on certain issues”.

The government of Cameron’s successor has however been quick to use McMafia as a spring-board to publicise its new Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO). These new investigatory powers are purportedly to be used to stop the likes of Alex from hiding money from the authorities. Anyone with over £50,000 of property who is politically exposed or suspected of a serious crime, will be forced to disclose the source of their wealth on request. While most British homeowners would own more than £50,000, the individuals are likely to be high profile politicians or under investigation already by the authorities. If they fail to respond punctually, they risk forfeiting their property.

The anti-corruption organisation Transparency International has long campaigned for such measures, highlighting cases such as the first family of Azerbaijan owning property in Hampstead or senior Russian politicians believed to own flats in Whitehall. Previously, confiscating hidden assets has been a lengthy and complex process: when the High Court confiscated an £11m London house belonging to a Kazakh dissident, the legal process took seven years.

The new Unexplained Wealth Orders mean that the onus is shifted to the owner of the property to prove legitimacy and the origin of the wealth. The authorities will have much greater power to investigate where finance and investment originated. But in order for them to work effectively, they will have to be backed up by expert prosecutors. The government still has a long way to go before it makes London a less attractive place to hide money.

Ben Keith is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill specialising in extradition, immigration, serious fraud, human rights and public law.