Recent media reports of an emerging trend in younger women in their 30s and 40s developing liver failure due to increased alcohol consumption may have surprised many who read the headlines but to those of us who work in the field of addiction, there was no surprise.
Studies on alcohol consumption in Ireland have long pointed to a significant rise among young women since the early 2000s, with the introduction of alcopops and increased marketing of designer alcoholic products aimed at women during the Celtic Tiger period.
Health professionals at one of Ireland’s leading hepatology clinics have seen what they call a huge increase in the number of women being admitted with serious life-threatening liver disease.
With stories like this coming directly from the front line, the questions we need to be asking are many. Why are women drinking so much? How are they drinking? What are they drinking? And what can government policy on alcohol consumption do about it?
The most recent report on alcohol consumption, harm and policy from the Health Research Board (HRB) states that, overall, women are less likely to consume alcohol in a harmful manner than men. However, the issue lies not with the quantity of alcohol women drink but the strength of what they consume. For example, spirits account for one-third of female drinking compared to only one-tenth of what men drink. This indicates that while women may consume less alcohol, what they consume is more harmful to their health.
Drinking at home
A shift in how we consume alcohol from drinking in pubs to drinking at home could also be a factor in why Irish people are underestimating the amount they drink and therefore the harm it is causing to their health. This was underlined in an HRB report in 2013 which stated that 10 per cent of the overall public health budget for that year was spent on the effects of alcohol consumption.
There are other health implications of concern for women, related to harmful alcohol consumption.
Drinking while pregnant poses a serious risk to the unborn child with the possibility of neurological damage to the foetus resulting in foetal alcohol syndrome – and yet two out of three women continue to drink while pregnant. Women leaving children in a dangerous situation is also considered by some experts as an alcohol-related harm.
What we need are education programmes for women that alert them to the effects of harmful drinking on their own and their children’s health. While education has long been dismissed as ineffective by the multibillion-euro, self-regulating drinks industry in this country, I would agree with those who maintain it is not education on alcohol consumption which is the problem, it is what we expect it to do which is at fault.
There is no quick fix where alcohol consumption in Ireland is concerned. Long-term cultural change is needed if we are ever to tackle the fatal relationship the Irish have with the demon drink.
Yet we must start somewhere and I would argue that effective government policy is needed urgently. And by effective, I mean effective and not the kind of half-hearted measures proposed by the upcoming Public Health Alcohol Bill which aims to reduce alcohol consumption in Ireland to 9.1 litres of pure alcohol per person per annum by 2020 and in so doing reduce alcohol-related harm.
What they don't tell you is that this will still leave Ireland with the highest rate of alcohol consumption in Europe per person, per annum. It will, in fact, have little or no effect on rates of alcohol-related harm. Even some of the measures put forward in the Bill such as a minimum unit price for alcohol are being challenged by the drinks industry and regulation of advertising and sponsorship is proving to be a non-starter.
Hard-hitting headlines are only the beginning in what I and others are predicting will be a catastrophic increase in the amount of young people, men and women, being admitted to hospital and dying from chronic liver failure. This is a disease that provides no warning, as people who develop cirrhosis, liver cancer or liver failure get no symptoms until they are in a crisis situation.
Drink-aware campaigns encourage people to know the one that’s one too much. I think we need to call time on this issue. Enough is enough.
Derek Byrne is station manager of Phoenix FM and lectures in drug and alcohol policy at NUI Maynooth