Words: Mehanaz Yakub
Photographs: Mehanaz Yakub and Ben Fraser
Cover photograph: Ben Fraser
Audio: Mehanaz Yakub

Have you ever wondered how hard it would be to quit drinking alcohol for a week? For a weekend? For an entire month?

For the sixth consecutive year, the Fondation Jean Lapointe is challenging Quebecers to find the answer and take part in their 28 Days Sober Challenge during the month of February.

The challenge is inspired by the popular British health campaign known as “Dry January,” during which people take a month-long break from boozing as a sort of detox from the excessive drinking over the holidays.

The money raised will go to alcohol, cannabis and other drug-use prevention workshops targeted at high school students.

An estimated 100,000 students will participate in prevention workshops in 600 high schools across Quebec this year.

During the first year of high school, students take part in a general information workshop on the effects alcohol and drugs can have on their body.

In subsequent years, the workshops delve into more specific situations that students might encounter if they start experimenting with these substances.

“I think teenagers, wherever they are from, will experiment [with alcohol] because they are curious and there is peer pressure,” said Anne Elizabeth Lapointe, Executive Director of La Maison Jean Lapointe, a rehabilitation centre supported by the foundation.

“What is happening in our society is that teenagers are getting information from so many different sources that they are confused,” Lapointe explained. “What we want to do is harmonize the message we send to the kids so that they have the right answers no matter who they talk to.”

Lapointe says part of the reason their workshops are successful is that the facilitators are coming into the schools from the outside. “[Students] are more willing to open up about either their experiences or their questions. They know they will not get judged and we have the answers.”

“We want them to develop strategies regarding alcohol and other drugs so that after the workshops they are able to make up their own minds, knowing what they are getting into should they choose to drink or do drugs,” she said.

The foundation has studied the impact their workshops have on students. They found that the students retained the information they learnt three to six month after the workshops and that it changed their assumptions and attitudes towards drugs and alcohol.

Anne Elizabeth Lapointe is the daughter of popular Quebecois entertainer Jean Lapointe, who was instrumental in creating the Maison Jean Lapointe rehab centre and foundation in 1982. Photo by Mehanaz Yakub

LISTEN: Lapointe says her father was an alcoholic for years, and after getting sober he wanted to help those with alcohol and drug problems with treatment, as well as increase awareness and prevention.

Culture of Drinking

Elisabeth Poirier-Defoy is participating in the 28-day challenge for the second time this year. “When I was a teenager, I think I would have liked to have these workshops — not because I was tempted to drink alcohol, but because if I had this kind of information when I was a teenager, I would have maybe been more aware or able to help people around me when they were thinking of having alcohol,” she said.

While she does not describe herself as a big drinker, she says that the hardest part of abstaining from alcohol is going out and being called “boring” for not drinking. “Maybe because of my age – I’m 28 – I would say that it’s very normal to go out on Saturday nights and have beers with friends or I have dinner at friends’ houses and have wine.”

According to the Director General of Éduc’alcool, Hubert Sacy, everyone has their own reasons to drink, but for the majority of young people, socializing while drinking is the number one factor.

“In some cases, we’ve seen some guys and girls playing the role of drunk people even though they were not drunk, [because] they wanted to be like the others,” Sacy said. “There is also something extremely strange about our society. Sometimes when I decide not to drink on Fridays or Saturdays and I say no thanks, [I am asked], ‘Why? Are you okay? Is anything wrong?’ But when I say yes [to a drink], nobody ever asks me why,” said Sacy.

Drawbacks to Alcohol

“We know that alcohol is considered one of the most harmful substances in the world,” said Dr. Ronald Fraser, the head of Inpatient Detoxification Service at McGill University Health Centre.

“Many people can have hazardous drinking habits without being an alcoholic. They may drink in a way that may cause long term health implications such as hypertension, increased risk of a wide variety of cancers, and neurological issues, which are going show up much farther down the road,” he said.

Fraser says he sees the pros and cons of taking a break from drinking for a month.

“If we use an analogy like dieting, if I make a concerted effort that ‘I’m going to eat healthy for the month of January, but I eat unhealthily the other 11 months of the year,’ it clearly makes no difference for my overall health,” Fraser said. “Alcohol is the same way. If I have unhealthy or hazardous drinking habits 11 out of 12 months of that year, taking that one month off is actually not going to make any difference or change in my long-term health outcomes.”

“I think the advantage of Dry January, however, is that it can give us an opportunity to look at our relationship with alcohol and determine whether or not there may be a cause for concern,” Fraser said.

In the past, the Fondation Jean Lapointe noticed participants worried about going completely cold turkey for a month because they knew they would want to drink during the Superbowl and Valentine’s day.

As a solution, the foundation offers up three options: abstaining from alcohol from Monday to Thursday, from Friday to Sunday or for the complete 28 days in February. Lapointe stressed that even if you drink once or twice during the month, it doesn’t mean you have failed.

“It’s just something to think about and make you more aware of how much alcohol is present in your life,” said Lapointe. “Not only are you doing the challenge for you, but you are also doing it for a good cause.”

The foundation estimates that more than 10,000 people will take part in the challenge and aims to raise $500,000 for their prevention work.