Men drink and smoke more than women, health survey finds

Healthy Ireland study raises concerns over risky sex, snacking and low levels of exercise

While smoking is in decline, drinking alcohol remains a majority pursuit, engaged in by 76 per cent of the population. Just over half of us drink at least weekly. File photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images

While smoking is in decline, drinking alcohol remains a majority pursuit, engaged in by 76 per cent of the population. Just over half of us drink at least weekly. File photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images

 

Significant variations in wellbeing between men and women and across social classes emerge from the first national survey of people’s health in almost a decade.

Men drink, binge drink and smoke more, but are also more likely to be highly active, and heavier, than women, according to the Healthy Ireland survey.

Wealthier groups smoke less but drink more alcohol in general than people in the most deprived areas, where binge drinking is higher.

The survey published by the Department of Health carries encouraging signs for the nation’s health, including falling smoking rates, a levelling off in obesity and positive levels of good mental health and social connectedness.

There are also numerous areas of concern, including high levels of risky sexual activity, binge drinking and snacking, and low levels of physical exercise.

Smoking is twice as common in deprived areas compared to more affluent groups, and levels of obesity among young women are twice those among male 15- to 24-year-olds.

More than 7,500 interviews were carried out for the survey, the first study of this size since 2007.

Reason for optimism

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar said the findings provided some reason for optimism but also highlighted risks such as the prospect of a dramatic risk in chronic diseases.

The survey expresses concern that a majority of men who recently had sex with men did not use a condom. However, the study presents evidence of “more widespread risky behaviour”, with 17 per cent of all those having sex with someone outside of a steady relationship not using any form of contraception.

“The exposure to risk for these individuals is significant,” it says.

Most of us describe our health in positive terms, with 85 per cent saying it is good or very good. Yet one-quarter of the population has a long-standing illness, and over half of this group experience limitations in everyday activities.

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High blood pressure and back pain are the most common ailments, both experienced by one in eight people. One in 10 of us suffer from arthritis or an allergy, according to the survey.

On average we visit the GP 4.3 times a year, and women are more frequent attenders than men.

However, the overall figure masks a substantial variation between people with medical cards (6.3 visits a year) and those without any card (2.9 visits).

Smoking prevalence is falling, and Ireland is on the way to being tobacco-free, according to the survey. The proportion of regular smokers has dropped from 24 per cent in the last national survey in 2007 to 19 per cent.

Occasional smoking is also down, from 5 per cent to 4 per cent.

People in the most deprived areas are over twice as likely to be smokers compared to the most affluent group - 35 per cent against 16 per cent.

While smoking is in decline, drinking alcohol remains a majority pursuit, engaged in by 76 per cent of the population. Just over half of us drink at least weekly.

Men drink more frequently than women, and more over-55s drink weekly than among other age groups.

Drinking to excess

The survey says drinking is a core part of Irish life and “more worryingly” drinking to excess on a regular basis is also commonplace.

Four out of 10 drinkers in Ireland drink to harmful levels on a monthly basis, and one-fifth do so on a weekly basis.

“Given that one in six of those drinking at harmful levels felt in the past 12 months that their drinking harmed their health, it is likely that many of those drinking in that way are unaware of the risks associated with it.”

Alcohol consumption rises with social class but binge drinking is highest in the most deprived areas, the survey also finds.

It uses the WHO definition of binge drinking as six or more standard drinks on a single occasion, equivalent to three pints of beer. The drinks industry considers this threshold too low.

Two-thirds of the population are not sufficiently active, a negative finding compounded by the fact that people spend on average more than five hours a day sitting. Four in 10 men are highly active, but only 24 per cent of women are.

Physical activity is not a cure-all for weight issues, however; 23 per cent of those who are obese are highly active.

On diet, one in four people say they eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, while 22 per cent say they don’t eat fruit or vegetables daily. Snacking is widespread, with 62 per cent saying they eat an average of two snacks a day.

Sugared drinks

Some 15 per cent drink sugar-sweetened drinks but, worrying, consumption is twice this level among young people aged 15-24 years.

Men are more likely to be overweight than women and overall, 37 per cent of the population has a normal weight, 37 per cent are overweight and 23 per cent are obese. Obesity is highest in more deprived areas.

The report finds encouraging levels of good mental health and reasonable levels of social connectedness in the population. Rubbish or litter lying around, and house break-ins, emerged as major sources of concern in this respect.