Irish women end up paying a very high price for cheap alcohol

Dublin conference hears how breast tissue is very susceptible to drink-related cancer

"How did we get here? How did we get from having cups of tea to slamming tequila shots at the bar," Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies in the UK, asked a conference on Girls, Women and Alcohol in Dublin yesterday.

Ann Dowsett Johnston, the Canadian best-selling author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, was under no illusions. "Alcohol is dirt cheap here. It is astonishing how cheap it is," she said.

It was time to start a conversation with women on public health policy and alcohol consumption, she told the conference. “We need to join the dots between breast cancer and alcohol.”

Dr Triona McCarthy, consultant in public health medicine with the National Cancer Control Programme, was there to join those dots.


Women who drink a small glass of wine a day increase their risk of getting breast cancer by 7 to 10 per cent, she said. The figures are sobering. “Breast tissue is particularly susceptible to alcohol-related cancer,” she said.

Young women should listen carefully. Young women who drink alcohol will find that their risk of getting breast cancer jumps hugely between their first period and their first pregnancy.


There was no level at which drinking alcohol was safe for women, McCarthy said. More than 10 per cent of breast cancers in Ireland are attributable to alcohol. Up to 300 women are affected each year. “All cases that are potentially preventable,” she said.

Dowsett Johnston said that we should take note of the health risks of drinking alcohol.

“Women of my age and under care much more about our health than ever and if we can be persuaded to see alcohol as something that we need to focus on, we will have made a great leap forward.”

Outlining the history of women and alcohol, Brown said that Babycham was the first alcoholic drink specifically made for and promoted to women, in the 1950s. Fast-forward to the 1990s, and the age of the “ladette”, when women knocked back pints and behaved badly.


From there, it was on to the 21st century and the girls who loved

Sex and the City

. “This helped to make public drinking more attractive for women. They weren’t drinking like men, but drinking cocktails and wearing high heels,” Brown said.

The worrying trend of our times was the phenomenon of “wine o’clock”, she told the conference. Some women think they are balancing out “home and work pressures” by having a glass or two of wine as the sun hits the yard arm.

She said that affordability, availability and promotion were the three factors that led to people drinking more.

There were 12 global alcohol producers, she said, and the industry had changed its marketing strategies“to attract women”.

Irish women should start thinking about their relationship with alcohol, said Dowsett Johnston. “Irish women are drinking twice what they did in the 1960s. That is amazing.”

Anthea McTeirnan

Anthea McTeirnan

Anthea McTeirnan is an Irish Times journalist