Women have caught up with men in the amount of alcohol they drink and are doing increasing amounts of damage to their health as a result, according to a global study that looked at the consumption habits of four million people over a period of over a century.
The change is partly the result of successful marketing campaigns and the creation of sweeter products aimed at young women or girls, as well as cuts in price, say health campaigners. Some studies have even suggested that younger women may be out-drinking men, according to the study’s authors.
The researchers from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre of the University of New South Wales, Australia, say the conclusion is that public health efforts need to focus more on women.
“These results have implications for the framing and targeting of alcohol use prevention and intervention programmes. Alcohol use and alcohol-use disorders have historically been viewed as a male phenomenon. The present study calls this assumption into question and suggests that young women in particular should be the target of concerted efforts to reduce the impact of substance use and related harms,” they say.
Their analysis, published in the journal BMJ Open, looks at the convergence of drinking habits between men and women over time, from 1891 to 2014. It pools the results of 68 international studies, published since 1980, to look at the changing ratio of male to female drinking over the years.
Historically, far more men drank alcohol than women. Men born between 1891 and 1910 were twice as likely as their female peers to drink alcohol and more than three times as likely to be involved in problematic use or use leading to harms. But in all three respects, this had almost reached parity among those born between 1991 and 2000.
Women’s drinking has increased for a number of reasons. Those who have succeeded in obtaining jobs that were once the preserve of men have joined – or found it necessary to become part of – the after-work drinking culture. Office for National Statistics figures from 2011 show that women in management and professional jobs drink more than the average woman and drink more on weekdays.
But drops in the price, which have led to wine and beer becoming regular items in the supermarket shopping trolley and part of everyday life at home, have also been a factor, alongside deliberate marketing targeted at women.
Minimum unit pricing to prevent low-cost selling and restrictions on alcohol promotion are included in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.
Debate on committee stage of the Bill starts in the Seanad on Wednesday. The Bill provides for minimum unit pricing to prevent below-cost selling and compulsory labels on all alcoholic drinks stating calorie count, health warnings and alcohol levels. It also includes restrictions on alcohol promotion and strict structural separation of alcohol products from other items in shops.
The Bill is subject to lobbying from small businesses and craft breweries over advertising and rules to separate alcohol from other products in shops.
Commenting on the global survey, Emily Robinson, director of campaigns at UK charity Alcohol Concern, said: "Since the 1950s we've seen women's drinking continue to rise."
“Drinking at home has continued to increase and because alcohol is so cheap and easily available it’s become an everyday grocery item. We’ve also seen a concerted effort from the alcohol industry to market products and brands specifically to women.
“We know from our annual Dry January campaign that people often don’t realise that alcohol has become a habit rather than a pleasure, with women having ‘wine o’clock’ most nights of the week.
“Drinking too much, too often, can store up future health problems, both mental and physical, with people not realising just how easy it is to go over recommended limits,” Robinson added.
“This is why we need mandatory health warnings on alcohol products and a mass media campaign to make sure the chief medical officer’s guidelines are widely known and understood.”
Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies in the UK, said: "Historically women did not drink that much. There has definitely been a proactive effort to entice women to drink more."
Some of the drinks now available have been targeted at young women who “pre-load” while getting together to dress and do their make-up before a night out. Three large glasses of wine can be the equivalent of nine units, she added.
Babycham was the first drink specifically designed with women in mind in post-war Britain. Today there are many others including Lambrini, which is aimed entirely at young women. “Sweet or fruity? Lively, smooth – or are you a classic kind of girl? With a Lambrini tailored to complement your own personal style and taste, you’re going to love our new collection!” says the advertising on its website.
Alcohol advertising and sponsorship is also noticeable in TV programmes aimed at women. For example, Baileys backed Desperate Housewives.
Women’s bodies do not tolerate alcohol as well as men’s, however, because they have a higher fat to water ratio. Because they have less water, the alcohol in their system remains more concentrated. They also have smaller livers than men, which makes it harder to process alcohol safely.
Additional reporting: Guardian service