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Alcohol and women

In recent decades, the gender gap between men and women’s alcohol consumption has closed; a 2016 analysis of 68 international studies showed that for those born in the late 1990s, men were only 1.1 times more likely to drink alcohol than women, 1.2 times more likely to drink in a way that suggested problematic use and 1.3 times more likely to experience alcohol-related harms.[1]

80% of women in England reported drinking in the last twelve months (compared to 87% of men).[2] In Great Britain, between 2005 and 2014, the majority of women surveyed drunk alcohol in the previous week; between 52% and 57%.[3] 16% of women in England[4] drink more than the Chief Medical Officers’ weekly low risk guideline amount (no more than 14 units a week).[5] For women, prevalence of this practice is highest amongst those aged 55 to 64, at 24%.[6]

12% of women in England,[7] and 13% in Great Britain[8] drank at a level considered by the CMO guidelines as binge drinking (more than six units in a day) at least once in the week prior to surveying in 2014. 4% of women in Great Britain drank over the weekly guideline units of up to 14 on their heaviest drinking day of the week; this compares to 12% of men.

Women from managerial and professional socio-economic groups – aka 'high fliers' – have been found to drink more on average than female routine and manual workers. It has been found that women in employment are more likely to drink than women who were unemployed or economically inactive.[9]

The rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions made by women to NHS hospitals has risen by over 30% since 2008/09 to 2014/15. 2,851 women died of alcohol-related causes in the UK in 2013, a mortality rate of 9.1 per 100,000 population; this increased to 9.6 in 2014.[10] Although the proportion of women referred for alcohol treatment programmes has remained relatively constant since records began in 2008 (34–36%), the number of referrals of new female clients for treatment has risen from 23,484 in 2008/09, peaking at 28,530 in 2013/14.

Evidence suggests that many of alcohol’s effects pose a greater risk to women's physical health at lower consumption levels than men,[11] and some alcohol-related physical harms impact exclusively or nearly exclusively on women. These health impacts include:

  • Dependence: Higher blood ethanol concentrations can affect the risk of dependence at an earlier stage for women[12]
  • Mental health: Associations have been noted between heavy drinking in women and psychiatric disorders such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, suicidality and eating disorders[13]
  • Reproductive problems: Heavy drinking is known to be a possible cause of infertility, but even small amounts of alcohol can affect a woman's fertility.[14] Alcohol has been found to affect menstrual cycles[15] and fertility treatments may also be affected[16]
  • Pregnancy: The UK Department of Health advises against pregnant women or women trying to conceive drinking alcohol, and warn that “drinking during pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby, with the more you drink, the greater the risk.”[17] Heavy drinking during pregnancy can lead to spontaneous abortion or a range of disabilities known as foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, of which Foetal Alcohol Syndrome [FAS] is the most severe[18]
  • Breast cancer: Many studies have since identified beyond doubt that alcohol is a major risk factor for breast cancer

 

Many explanations have been offered for the rise in female drinking, including but not limited to: Empty Nest Syndrome, ‘Ladette’ culture, women’s changing role in the workplace and changing education levels, lifestyle shifts, and alcohol advertising targeting women.

As the health and social problems from female alcohol misuse grow, there are increasing calls for alcohol policy to be more targeted towards women's drinking habits.

Click on links opposite to view each section of the factsheet online, or click on the image below to download the entire factsheet as a PDF (updated March 2017):


[1] Slade T, Chapman C, Swift W, Keyes K, Tonks Z, and Teesson M (2016)., ‘Birth cohort trends in the global epidemiology of alcohol use and alcohol-related harms in men and women: systematic review and metaregression’, BMJ Open, 6(10), e011827

[2] NHS Digital (formerly the Health & Social Care Information Centre) (December 2016), ‘Health Survey for England’, 2015 [NS]

[3] Office for National Statistics (ONS) (March 2016), ‘Adult drinking habits in Great Britain: 2014’, in Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, Table 1

[4] NHS Digital (December 2016), ‘Health Survey for England 2015: Adult alcohol’, in Health Survey for England, 2015 [NS], Table 3

[5] Department of Health (January 2016), ‘UK Chief Medical Officers’ Alcohol Guidelines Review: Summary of the proposed new guidelines’ <https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/489795/summary.pdf>

[6] NHS Digital (December 2016), ‘Health Survey for England 2015: Adult alcohol’, in Health Survey for England, 2015 [NS], Table 3

[7] NHS Digital (December 2016), ‘Health Survey for England 2015: Adult alcohol’, in Health Survey for England, 2015 [NS], Table 7

[8] ONS (March 2016), 'Adult drinking habits', in Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, Table 2a

[9] ONS (March 2016), ‘Adult drinking habits in Great Britain: 2014’, in Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, Table 4

[10] ONS, (February 2016), ‘Alcohol Related Deaths in the United Kingdom: Registered in 2014’

[11] Edwards G et al (1994)., 'Alcohol Policy and the Public Good', Oxford University Press: USA

[12] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, (June 2002), 'Alcohol consumption and problems in the general population: Findings from the 1992 National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey'

[13] Wilsnack SC, Wilsnack RW, and Kantor LW (2014)., ‘Focus on: women and the costs of alcohol use. Alcohol research: current reviews’, 35(2), p. 219

[14] Jensen TK et al (August 1998)., 'Does moderate alcohol consumption affect fertility?', BMJ, vol 317, pp. 505–510

[15] Aluko EO, Olubobokun TH, Adekunbi DA, and Udo NV (2014)., ‘Sexual Functions, Sexual Organs and Sex Hormone Level in Chronic Alcohol Intake’, British Journal of Medicine and Medical Research, 4(6), p. 1,279

[16] Gormack AA, Peek JC, Derraik JG, Gluckman PD, Young NL, and Cutfield WS (2015)., ‘Many women undergoing fertility treatment make poor lifestyle choices that may affect treatment outcome.’, Human reproduction, 30(7), pp. 1,617–1,624

[17] Department of Health (2016), ‘UK Chief Medical Officers’ Alcohol Guidelines Review: Summary of the proposed new guidelines’ <https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/489795/summary.pdf>

[18] World Health Organisation (WHO) (2011), ‘Fetal alcohol syndrome: dashed hopes, damaged lives’, Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2011, 89: pp. 398–399

<http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/89/6/11-020611/en/index.html#_blank>