WOMEN DRINKING MORE THAN MEN AND PUTTING THEMSELVES AT RISK
by Mark Bryce-Sharron
According to a global study, alcohol consumption in women has gradually caught up with that of men- causing health implications for women as an end result.
Alcohol consumption habits of four million people were studied for over a century. It was discovered that although alcohol use and disorder have been historically viewed as a male phenomenon, the increasing number of women consuming alcohol faults this assumption, calling for the need for alcohol related public health efforts to focus more on women.
The study was carried out by analysing drinking habits between men and women from 1891 to 2014, collating the results of 68 international studies since 1980. The analysis looked at how the ratio of male to female drinking had changed over the years, based on 3 broad categories: any alcohol use, problematic alcohol use and alcohol-related harms. It was discovered that the alcohol consumption gap between men and women is closing rapidly.
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
Considering that alcohol abuse has always been associated with men, the discovery that younger women may be out-drinking men indicates that some things have changed. The study was carried out by researchers at the Australian NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Mental Health and Substance Use at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in the US. They mostly investigated how the trends (of alcohol consumption between men and women) have changed over the course of the period under study, and not why these trends have changed. A lot of the suggestions as to why have been put forward by independent experts.
The researchers, however, indicated that because more women are working now as opposed to 50 years ago, they have an independent income and can socialise more easily without relying on their partners. They also suggested that better education of women and increased age of first marriage could be contributory factors- in addition to broader social, cultural and economic changes.
There are other reasons why the consumption of alcohol by women is rapidly catching up to that of men. Over the years, marketing campaigns for alcoholic beverages have targeted young women and girls by creating sweeter products that appeal to them.
In addition, as a result of drop in prices, alcoholic items such as beer and wine have become a regular part of everyday life. Alcohol is cheap, more readily available and accessible. This has contributed to an increase in alcohol consumption at home, as a habit rather than for pleasure.
According to the Office of National Statistics, almost 1 in 5 higher earners drink alcohol at least 5 days a week. This includes women in management and professional jobs, who, in addition to obtaining jobs that used to be dominated by men, have also adopted the after-work drinking culture.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Alcohol use prevention and intervention programmes have often been framed around the assumption that men are more susceptible to alcohol use. Following the trend, the study observed that men born between 1891 and 1910 were twice as likely to consume alcohol than their female peers, and more than three times as likely to be involved in the abuse of the substance. Of the men and women born between 1991 and 2000, the rate of consumption and abuse between both sexes has almost reached parity. This discovery brings to light, the need to consider a reframing or restructuring of these programmes so that efforts should also be targeted at young women to reduce the impact of the substance and related harms.
The danger attached to drinking too much, is in the mental and physical health problems that are attached to it- especially as it is easy to go over the recommended limit of 14 units of alcohol a week. A deliberate campaign needs to be carried out to make people aware.
Alcohol tolerance levels for men are higher than that of women. Fat to water ration are higher for women than for men, which results in an inability to rid their systems of alcohol as quickly as a man’s body will get rid of alcohol. This implies that the alcohol in their system remains more concentrated. In addition, women have smaller livers which makes it more difficult for them to process alcohol safely, than men.
Katherine Brown of the Institute of Alcohol Studies indicates that there is a deliberate effort to entice women into drinking more. This is embedded in the range of alcoholic beverages and advertisement campaigns targeted at them.
This is a calculated approach. Drinks specifically designed with young women in mind usually taste sweet and fruity. The ads have catchy phrases giving the impression that these beverages are ‘girly’ and are made to project personal style and taste. The advertising campaigns also target TV programmes aimed at women which are sometimes sponsored by makers of alcohol beverages so that their adverts are run when these programmes are shown. This is an attempt to sell to women.
There are, however, side effects as a result of which there has been a call for a mass media campaign so that mandatory health warnings are indicated on alcoholic products.
CALL FOR ACTION
Based on the study, there should be a focus on adolescent and young adult sex-specific trends in substance use. This is because trends in alcohol consumption indicates that adults begin to use alcohol earlier than used to be the case.
More importantly is the need to re-examine alcohol use and prevention programmes. The results of the study have implications for framing and targeting of these programmes. As a result of the closing gap in alcohol consumption between men and women, efforts should be targeted at reducing the impacts of substance use and related harms in women as well because, it is apparent that alcohol use and its related disorders are not a male phenomenon anymore.
Although the study has some shortcomings, which includes the fact that it was not able to give specific reasons why there has been an increase in alcohol consumption by women, there is no denying the fact that the discovery made will be beneficial for targeting alcohol abuse prevention programmes.