Our Conversation with Michael Caldwell of Dry January USA

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Our Conversation with Michael Caldwell of Dry January USA

Dr. Michael Caldwell, Chief Medical Officer for Dry January USA, sat down with AFTER's Nicole Pietrandrea Hough to discuss the role of Dry January USA and where the alcohol-free movement is headed. Full video on YouTube!

Watch the video here with transcript and resources below.

Nicole Pietrandrea Hough for AFTER Magazine: Hi, I’m Nicole Pietrandrea for AFTER Alcohol-Free Magazine and I’m happy to be here today with Dr. Michael Caldwell, who is the Chief Medical Officer for dry January, USA, as well as a Professor of Public Health Practice and internal medicine at Meharry. Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s nice to be here with you.

 

 

Dr. Michael Caldwell, Meharry Medical College, Chief Medical Officer of Dry January USA: So happy to be here today and talk about dry January USA and reducing or eliminating alcohol. So thank you, Nicole.

 

N: You’re welcome. Thank you. So yes, today is February 1. So we’re doing this right at the end of Dry January. So I’d love to just talk about, you know, how did you become involved? How did this all happen? And then do maybe a recap of this year where you’re headed and maybe some thoughts for people who just went through Dry January, so maybe we can start at the very beginning? Sure.

 

 

M: Well, I think a lot of people may know that Dry January has a few different stories of origin, but they primarily came from the United Kingdom about 10 years ago. A charity called Alcohol Change UK. And they also have trademarked the term dry January, USA. So I’m a Doctor of Internal Medicine and Preventive Medicine. And I got very interested in alcohol as a burden for my patients in my community over a number of years, and I joined Meharry Medical College about three years ago. It’s a historically black medical school in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the very first one in the South right after the Civil War. So our president Dr. James Hildreth, and I learned that there were official launches of the Dry January trademark brand in a number of other countries. But no one had taken the leadership role in the United States. So we reached out to the CEO of Alcohol Change UK, Dr. Richard Piper. And we then became the sole licensee for Dry January, USA. So we are in the middle of a five year so licensing agreement, we really are excited about this, because we get to tell more people about my hairy Medical College, and what they what we have been doing, why we exist to have a medical school and dental school and we just launched a new School of Global Health, we also recognize that as your medical school, we want to try to take care of our community. And Nashville, Tennessee is known as Music City. We can’t be Music City without musicians or the music industry or the food and beverage industry. And they definitely have much higher rates of addiction than the general population and alcohol was right up there with being a problem. And so we wanted to do something to address that. So that’s how it’s how we got Dry January. And we are really excited to talk to you about your what we did this month and what we see moving forward.

 

N: So you’re in year two of being the stewards of Dry January, is that right?

 

M: Yes,yep, that’s right, we kind of had a little soft launch last year, we have this year been more visible. And we think that over these next number of months, we’re going to really build momentum so that by October into January next year, the many more people will know that Dry January is not just a phenomenon, it actually has a home in the United States. And that home is Nashville, Tennessee. And we want to let everyone know no matter where you’re doing dry January across the United States that we’re here for you and that we connect with you and we hope that others will connect with us.

 

N: So what do you see as maybe the primary responsibilities and goals as the stewards of Dry January?

 

 

M: We see our role as educating the community about what alcohol does to you. Principally trying to make sure that we translate a lot of the new science that’s coming out. And I think that there is now a recognition scientifically overall that all scientists believe that there is no benefit to alcohol. That seems to be some relative news to a lot of people everyone had previously thought that well maybe a little alcohol might be good for you, or maybe certain type of alcohol might be good for you. So I think that has now been fully rejected that no alcohol is good for you similar to the way we realized decades ago that no little amount of cigarettes were good for you. There’s actually still a learning curve, there’s still a number of people who have believe what had been said in the past. Also, we know that alcohol is linked very closely to a number of different cancers, of course, in addition to many other diseases of the heart, and of the nervous system in the brain, but cancer, I think cancer is what really grabs people’s attention. And it’s not just the oropharyngeal cancers and, and liver, it also is things like colon cancer, and breast cancer, cancers that are very prevalent, and ones that are really scare people. And I know that we have a long way to go to educate people about this link, because I still see every year, that an October, there are, for example, a lot of fundraisers to raise money for breast cancer research that promote pink alcohol-containing cocktails. Now, that to me, I don’t have a problem with that as long as you also educate people that the drink you’re consuming may increase your risk of breast cancer, for example.

 

So I think these are real challenges and something that we as a medical school, a school of global health can really take the lead on. And we can amplify all the other voices that are out there across the country that people participating in Dry January, we are not all knowing or all knowledgeable we are as a community and a country doing so many great things. And we feel one of our roles, in addition to just translating and highlighting research is to highlight other great stories of people like you, around the country doing things to help your community. One example here in Nashville, Tennessee, is we have just opened the first non-alcoholic bottle shop. It’s called the Killjoy Club. And it is run by Stephanie Styll. So that is an example of a great leader in a community trying to move their communities forward. So we see our role also, like your role, is it telling stories to inspire people to learn from each other. And also, we are so excited about the technological advances in these new adult non-alcoholic beverages.

 

We have been supported as alcohol change UK has by two companies in particular, one is Lyre’s, which is an Australian company that makes non-alcoholic wine and spirits. The other is Mocktails.com. That makes a non-alcoholic adult mocktails. So we know that this provides people opportunities to make choices that they didn’t know they had before. Whether they just want to drink less substitute in some of these products to so they drink less alcohol, or maybe they’ve already stopped drinking, but they always liked the taste of a particular type of beer, wine or spirit or a cocktail. And now they can enjoy that. As long as you and I have talked about this before people understand that that possibly could be a trigger for people who are really in recovery, that just keep note of that. But I have spoken to many people over this month who are so grateful that they now have, you know, some remembrance of an enjoyment and they have told me that it is not triggering to them. But of course that always needs to be monitored.

 

N: Right? That’s important. It’s really interesting to watch this all happening. There’s like this grassroots movement of people like Stephanie and Killjoy and then there’s the medical community coming from a different angle and there are these products suddenly available… and it feels like this whirlwind of things is converging at once.

 

But I’m curious, you mentioned that you were a leader in kind of changing the attitudes around tobacco.  How would you compare that? Like where are we on the spectrum of change and how would you compare and contrast those two things?  

 

 

M: I went to medical school and trained in internal medicine in the late 80s and early 90s. And there was still smoking in the hospitals there a smoking lounges. One of my beloved attending physicians would smoke on rounds in between the patient’s rooms and I think, at that time you’ve with, like my brain of 2024, being back in the early 90s was just so shocked, like, how could this be possible?

 

N: Right.  We used to smoke in the office on Wall Street when I worked on Wall Street when I worked in Wall Street in the 90s.

 

 

M: Yeah, I mean, what did it take? It took a real, measured sustained effort on multiple fronts. But one of the most difficult and challenging was an educational campaign, and that we just needed to continue to talk, educate people and meet them at every level that we could meet them at. So I think we’re just really at the beginning of that effort. Now, I feel like we have a good 30 years worth of work to do. However, now that we have these technological advances in these adult non-alcoholic beverage products, they’re adding to our ability to communicate with people have conversations with people to talk about Dry January also is having conversations with people similar, you probably remember, there still is the Great American Smokeout where the American Cancer Society would ask people to quit for one day, and then hopefully they quit for good. So in some ways, that was kind of like, you know, a Dry January thing saying if you can just quit for a day you can quit for good.

 

So I think that there’s a lot of parallels a lot of similarities that I can draw from, from all of my years of experience. What we were also trying to do is reduce people’s exposure to secondhand smoke. That’s not necessarily exactly the same. But you know, we want to, on the other hand, add more products add more non-alcoholic products to places where there are the alcohol. So instead of trying to take things away, we want to add to it so that it becomes more common. So I used to say, to my students that I dreamt of a day years ago, when if I went into a restaurant, the first question I would not get asked was Smoking or Non-smoking. And I told them just recently, I said, I’m living the dream. I’m like, I don’t get asked that question anymore. In my new dream, my new dream is that when I go somewhere, and I asked for a beer, that the person who’s taking my order says, Will that be alcohol or non-alcohol, or when I open the menu, there will be an equal number, or a very nice selection of alcohol and non-alcohol products, we need to build a sense of equality and acceptance, number one to know that a third of people never drink, they just don’t drink, another third of people will drink on and off. And then another third of people really have alcohol use disorder and do have problems over time. And so we want to meet everyone where they are. And we’re trying to get the food and beverage industry to understand that this is something that they can lean into and also make money on. It’s nothing that they’re going to lose money on. You want to be able to have as serve as many customers as you can and make them feel comfortable. And that also goes into an idea that I know that Dr. Richard Piper and Alcohol Change UK has highlighted which is sober shaming.

Yes. Yeah. I was going to bring that up. Yes.

 

Where you make people feel bad for not drinking Or you question them, like what’s wrong with you why aren’t you drinking? Or maybe why they themselves feel insecure and that if you’re choosing not to drink, you’re, you’re saying something about them. I just heard this over this past weekend, we were at the Green Hills Mall, giving out free Lyre’s, cocktails, non-alcoholic cocktails. And a number of people here of course in Music City are from the music industry. And they talked about their own personal struggles with alcohol, but also how certain musicians and band members really draw a line and say if you’re if you’re not drinking, you’re not in this band, or you can’t tour with me or you can be my friend and that is a lot of pressure when you’re trying to make money and your work. So it’s it strikes at the heart of other work that we have to do. And as scientists and medical doctors and public health people, I think we can really contribute to asking questions, being able to do good research and being able to help put a spotlight on some of these places that are now “dark corners” that people don’t want to talk about.

 

N: Right. I think there are a lot of people doing good work in that area making not-drinking seem cool and not just kind of fringe and loser you know It’s a difference between cigarettes and alcohol is that no one ever said no I don’t smoke and everyone said well what’s wrong with you.  That’s still pretty prevalent that people say “Oh you’re not a drinker, you must have a problem.” And that people immediately get triggered themselves like “Oh you must be judging me.” There’s a lot of shame… you just used the term “dark corners,” there’s a lot of shame and a lot of judgment still within that. It’s an uphill battle I think, to combat that.

 

 

M: The mission of Meharry Medical College is to serve the underserved. So we run to places there other people are not addressing. And if you think about the problem of addiction in our country, our even our national drug control strategy out of the White House talks about opioids and addiction and drug trafficking. And they mentioned alcohol just a little bit only for underage drinking. But yet we’re swimming in alcohol. All other addictions actually are probably complemented by co-use of alcohol, but nobody is focusing on it. So we have a tradition at Meharry to put a spotlight on areas that need to be further looked at, in a way that everyone else is sort of ignoring, or just accepting. And that’s why we think we’re really well placed for this.

 

N: So just to sort of recap what I’m taking away from what you’re saying: is there’s an education component that needs to reach the individuals, the culture as a whole, the government, and the restaurants and bars and creators of all these products.  So there’s kind of like this four-pronged thing that needs to happen.

 

 

M: I love it, Nicole. Go write that up in your next article.

 

N: I think I will.

 

 

M: I think that we’re coming up with a great pathway for us to, you know, have clarity to help all of us move forward. And you asked what is the role of Dry January, USA, we’re a convener, like we say we’re a home, we want people to feel connected to us, we want to feel connected to them, bring people together and chart a path forward because we are being failed by our federal government. They’re not addressing this. A lot of it has to do with your politics and business and money.

 

N: A lot of money.

 

M: So we have a way a pathway for it. It’s an unmet need. Nobody is standing up and doing it. You hear a little glimmers of it maybe in certain parts of the federal government, but for example, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism part of the NIH Well, our director there, Dr. George Koob, is really been doing his best to inform people about what the research is showing. But there’s our political backlash is for if he mentions things that he’s not even pushing For example, Dr. Koob mentioned that the Canadian government guidelines were very much restrictive and saying that people should drink much, much less alcohol than that people are consuming right now what the recommended amount of daily alcohol use is now it’s like one a week. And I think Dr. Koob brought this up. And next thing, you know, you hear in the media, somebody saying, oh, Joe Biden wants to take your beer away. You know, that’s, just part of the whole political process. And, and we need to understand that needs to be addressed at multiple levels.

 

 

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N: Right, somehow this message got skewed, that it’s like against my fundamental rights when it’s really meant to preserve your health.

 

 

M: It’s complicated. It’s very complicated. And you know, that tobacco history and our efforts and our success, you know, taught us a lot of lessons about the web between profit and science. And people who, who just are addicted. Some of my closest attending physicians, where I went to medical school were angry at me for trying to make the hospital smoke-free because they felt like I was attacking them. One was the chairman of the Department of Pediatrics. One was our senior scientist and researcher. These were addicted daily smokers and they just felt I was making a personal attack on them. And so we must take a moment to step back and recognize there’s a lot of emotion in how people approach tobacco as well as alcohol. And of course, alcohol, what I learned in high school and I think is still true the first thing that goes when you drink alcohol is your judgment. And then eventually your memory. That reminds me also we have a great ambassador as a Music City. We have a music ambassador, his name is Gramps Morgan. He is a reggae country music artist and he actually is sober himself. He never drank. But he created a song called “Rumnesia” because he even though he grew up in Brooklyn in Boston, he also grew up in Jamaica so as you know, when you drink alcohol, you get amnesia. But in Jamaica, you get wrong leisure so it’s a nice tongue-in-cheek song I ask all of you to learn about Gramps Morgan and his great.

 

N: I’ll link to that in our video.

 

 

M: Gramps Morgan, he just has another album out called Deeper, he actually is part of reggae royalty. His dad was contemporary of Bob Marley. And he and his brothers have a great band called Morgan Heritage, but really wonderful. And we try to highlight others who are doing great things and want other people to learn about us.

 

N: So that leads me into let’s talk a little bit about this past January, what were some key takeaways? And then you mentioned that you have things planned for the rest of the whole year. So let’s..

 

 

M: Yeah we had a great event at an iconic establishment called the Bluebird Cafe, on the first Friday of January. It’s called Meharry at the Bluebird Cafe sponsored by Dry January, USA. And we also had just a wonderful collection of supporters that came. Now this venue is a very intimate, small venue. But it is sort of like the church of music, and it’s been around since 1982. But it’s where people go to tell their stories sing their songs, they come with a full heart hoping that they can connect with somebody. So in that spirit, somebody who was completely unheard of named Garth Brooks went there for the first time and got their first record deal. And another young teenager named Taylor Swift no one ever heard of her went there got her first record deal so with that history Meharry Medical College with Dry January USA went with Gramps Morgan and a couple of other wonderful artists Jamie Kent, and Annie Mosier and our community foundation in Middle Tennessee. So we told our story about who we are Meharry Medical College, Dry January, USA, what are the progress we’re making, and so that was a great kickoff event. We’re going to be hopefully doing that annually. Just last weekend, we had an activation at the Green Hills Mall. This is sort of our higher end mall in Nashville, Tennessee, and we handed out 3000 of the cans of the Lyre’s mocktails and actually tonight, February 1, where we’re having a celebration at a wonderful Neapolitan Italian restaurant the best most authentic one in Nashville so if you’re in Nashville, look it up. It’s called Il Forno it means “the oven.” And we are doing this now for our second year on February 1 thing even though January may be over Dry January USA is here with you throughout the year with Meharry Medical College with our Try Dry App. We are going to be taking advantage of other important months throughout the year. Of note in our April is Alcohol Awareness Month. Of course, October also known as Breast Cancer Awareness Month or Sober October we’re going to really put a spotlight on alcohol being a risk factor for cancer. We’re going to be starting a 5k race starting here at Meharry Medical College and going around Nashville to just put that message out there alcohol is a risk factor for breast cancer because that is a message that does not get through all the pink colors of that month. And then we are the home of the CBS broadcast for New Year’s Eve. I don’t know if you knew that. But on the on New Year’s Eve celebrations Nashville Music City is the highlighted city for CBS broadcast so we are looking forward to having a presence on New Year’s Eve and then right into January of next year. So look at continuing to grow. Ultimately, we want to have the first historically black school alcohol research, education and treatment center. We do a lot of that already. But the funded centers are not at historically black schools and we really want to put some asterix and do more focus on the equity impacts of alcohol use.

 

N: So you have a busy year ahead.

 

 

M: Don’t we all? Really! We have a lot of challenges ahead of us. And, and it’s not, it’s not a straight line. And you and I both know this, it’s yeah, they’re always curveballs. And but we just have to keep moving forward.

 

N: Right? Yes, absolutely. Every little thing makes a difference. And we’ll keep doing it. So just putting on your medical hat for a moment, if someone has just finished Dry January, they might be feeling great. But I’ve we’ve had a couple of conversations this month about how 30 days is really just the beginning. So what could someone expect to be feeling? And then if they continued, what would be additional benefits? And like, what’s the motivation to keep going?

 

 

M: Well, hopefully, if somebody has made it this far, they’ve already been able to develop new habits, starting to have some new rituals. And maybe being curious finding new things that they didn’t realize, satisfy them, I just say keep that going as long as you can. If you feel like you do want to have an alcoholic drink again, try to start back slower than you would normally do. And try to share your new experiences with others who are with you friends and family, surround yourself more if you’ve taken on and learned about some of these new adult non-alcoholic beverages have more of those available, so that you have those to choose from. And if you can reduce the alcohol that is just routinely around in the house. For example, when people are trying to reduce eating ice cream or sweets, the one thing we say is try not to have them in the house, not have them so easily available. So I think people should be sleeping better, they should be more productive, they should hopefully, if taken on some other good habits, like maybe moving more walking or exercising or going to the gym, keep leaning into the good habits, that’s going to keep pushing you to want to not be a drag that alcohol is a drag. And it might, you know, numb you, but it’s going to continue to keep you down. And we want people to know that it sort of people think that if they are not drinking alcohol, if they have been they’re missing something. And what the truth is, is that by drinking alcohol, you’re missing some, you’re not opening yourself up to new experiences. So your skin should be feeling better your heart. Now this is interesting, it’s more of a silent benefit people’s pulse and blood pressure. They don’t it unless you are concerned about this and are monitoring it regularly. Most people don’t monitor but I guarantee you that your heart is feeling much happier. Without alcohol, your blood pressure is lower. And all of those daily changes in how the heart compensates for the burden of alcohol are going to be relieved and that you know it adds up over time, your cancer risk is going to go down once again, that’s kind of silent, you don’t really notice it at the time. And your immune system is harmed by alcohol actually causes inflammation directly on where the alcohol goes through your digestive tract. But then it leaks through all of your body. And as you know, people who drink regularly, at least people of my coloring have like more of a ruddy complexion. And that’s because of the damage that alcohol does to your skin. So there are a lot of reasons to try to keep moving forward. And hey, if you didn’t do Dry January, you can do it at any time. Whatever is motivated, today’s February 1, it’s a new month. Try something think about it. And we also like people to know that even if you just think about Dry January, even though you may not be ready to do it, you’ve already started to it because it’s a journey. It’s a pathway, learn about the dry, dry out, learn about the science read and just keep informed and go to people who are doing healthy things. Because there are a lot of fun.

 

N: Right? That’s something I never really realized. Like I have more energy for a hike. There’s a lot of fun stuff. We also always say, you know, don’t just focus on “not drinking,” you know, you have to fill that void with something fun and productive that you love or you know, otherwise you’re just suffering. There’s no need for that, you know You’ve opened this pathway for so much more.

 

 

M: Exactly.

 

N: Yeah. So it’s a new day. I love that it’s a new day. It’s the beginning of February. And this is a good opportunity for anyone whether they’ve done Dry January or not. And I like that you have this year long plan.

 

M: Yes. And I also would like to mention, you know, February is Black History Month. So it’s extra special to us here at Meharry Medical College. And it also is Heart Month, right. So coming up on Valentine’s Day, so do something great for your heart. And you know, that is to reduce the amount of alcohol.

 

N: That’s great. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me. This has been really great. I’m glad to get to know you. And I’m glad to get to know Dry January, USA a little bit better and your story and everything. There’s so many wonderful things there.

 

 

M: Thank you, Nicole. We were just getting started. And, you know, we look forward to getting to know you more, and all of your network. And please ask us out to visit any special events. We’d love to join you and support any way we can.

 

N: We will definitely do that.  Thank you so much. We’ll talk to you again soon.

 

 

M: Thank you, Nicole.

 

N: Thank you.

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About Michael Caldwell

Dr Michael C Caldwell is the Chief Medical Officer for Dry January® USA and a Professor of Public Health Practice and Internal Medicine at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN.

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