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Changing trends in women's drinking

How many women drink?

Data from the 2014 Health Survey for England shows 80% of women in England reported drinking in the last twelve months (compared to 87% of men).[1]

While alcohol use and related harm have historically been more prevalent in men than women, this gender gap has now closed. A 2016 analysis of 68 international studies, with a combined sample size of over 4 million people, found that the male-to-female ratios of alcohol use and related harm have shrunk dramatically across birth cohorts from 1891 to 2001. For those born in the early 1900s, men were 2.2 times more likely than women to drink alcohol, 3 times more likely to drink in a way that suggested problematic use, and 3.6 times more likely to experience alcohol-related harms. However, 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.[2]

Overall, the male-to-female ratio of alcohol use decreased by 4.2% with each successive 5-year birth cohort; however, for birth cohorts from 1966 to 2000 the rate of change was much steeper, decreasing by 10.1% for each cohort.[3]

 


 

Similar findings relating to hazardous alcohol consumption have also been identified amongst Irish university undergraduates; 67.3% of women surveyed reported hazardous alcohol consumption, compared to 65.2% of men.[4]

How much and how often are they drinking?

The 2014 Opinions and Lifestyle Survey [OLS] depicts a recent history of women's drinking patterns and trends in Great Britain; between 2005 and 2014, the majority of women surveyed drunk alcohol in the last week; between 52% and 57%.[5] (for a more in-depth analysis of drinking habits, please view our Consumption factsheets). The proportion of women consuming alcohol regularly has recently dipped from historically high levels. Between 1998 and 2010, at least 10% of women claimed to have had a drink on at least 5 days in the week prior to interview,[6] with this figure shifting to 8–9% from 2011 to 2014.[7] The proportion of women who are teetotal has remained relatively stable from 2005 to 2014, at between 23–26%.[8]

Data from the Health Survey for England shows that 16% of women in England[9] drink more than the Chief Medical Officers’ [CMO] weekly low risk guideline amount (no more than 14 units a week).[10] For women, prevalence of this practice is highest amongst those aged 55 to 64, at 24%.[11]

Public Health England reports that 12% of women in England,[12] and 13% in Great Britain[13] 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.

 


 

As shown in figure 3, 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.

 


 

What do women drink?

The most popular type of drink for women is wine; according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures, in 2014, 70% of women ‘binge drinkers’* who reported drinking alcohol in the last week consumed wine on their heaviest drinking day, compared to 33% who consumed spirits or liqueurs and 22% who drunk normal strength beer, stout, larger or cider.[14] For women non-binge drinkers** who reported drinking in the last week, 61% reported consuming wine on their heaviest drinking day last week. These findings align with reporting from the Financial Times, which states that around 7 of every 10 bottles of wine purchased in British supermarkets are bought by women.[15]

Professional women and alcohol

When defined by occupation type, General Lifestyle Survey (GLS) data highlight the discrepancy in drinking frequency between white and blue collar female workers. In 2011, female managerial and professional workers were found to be more likely than female routine and manual workers to have drunk in the last week, and to have drunk on five days or more in the last week (see figure 4). 34% of female managerial and professional workers reported consuming alcohol to hazardous levels at least once in the last week compared to 28% of UK women on average. In contrast, a lower-than-average proportion of routine and manual female employees consumed alcohol to hazardous levels at least once in the last week (22%).

 


 

It is important to note that, as is observed in GLS reports, the estimated consumption data may be lower than the actual amount drunk, as people are likely to 'consciously or unconsciously underestimate how much alcohol they consume'.[16]

The OLS in 2014 found that a higher proportion of economically inactive and unemployed women were teetotal that those in employment (34% and 37% respectively vs 16%). Conversely, it found a higher proportion of women in employment drank in the week prior to the survey than women who were unemployed or economically inactive (60% vs 39% and 44% respectively).[17]

Female alcohol-related hospital admissions

The rate of alcohol-related admissions for women to NHS hospitals in England has continually risen over the last decade (figure 5).

 


 

The rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions made by women to NHS hospitals has risen by over 30% since 2008/09 to 2014/15 (see figure 6).

 


 

The impact of alcohol on women in recent years is also reflected in the significant take up of new clients on treatment programmes year on year. 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 (figure 6). In 2016, there were 40,557 women in total in treatment programmes addressing alcohol.[18]

As well as this, the alcohol-related death rate for women has remained relatively static since 2008. As figure 7 demonstrates, 7,900 women died of alcohol-related causes in the UK in 2014, a mortality rate of 28.7 per 100,000 population.

 


 

A newspaper article published in February 2013 reported that statistics from a Freedom of Information Act request indicated a rise in the number of career women dying of alcohol-related causes in England and Wales over a similar period. It noted the following figures for women in various professions:[19]

  1. For women in high-flying roles such as chief executives, doctors and lawyers, the number of deaths caused by drinking has risen by 23%. And at lower management level, those losing their lives to liver disease and other conditions caused by alcohol rose from 247 to 290 – a 17% hike
  2. For women in ‘higher professional’ occupations, deaths rose from 42 to 52
  3. In ‘intermediate occupations’, such as secretarial or other skilled office work, it rose from 142 to 209 – 47%
  4. For ‘semi routine’ jobs such as shop assistants and hair dressers, it has risen 47 per cent, from 202 to 306

According to the newspaper, the rise in alcohol-related deaths among career women between 2001 and 2011 was significant because the figure was 'rising faster than among men'. The notable exception to the general increase came from the number of alcohol-related deaths for women in low-skilled and technical jobs (it has remained the same since 2001, the article says).

 

Next: The effects of alcohol on women


* Binge drinkers; exceeded 8/6 units on heaviest drinking day (In line with the Government’s Alcohol Strategy, men are considered to have binged if they drank more than eight units of alcohol on their heaviest drinking day in the week before interview, and women if they drank more than six units. The stated number of units differs for men and women. For example, 8/6 units means 8 units for men, and 6 units for women. If someone drank equally heavily on more than one day, they were asked about the most recent of these days).

** Other drinkers; did not exceed 8/6 units on heaviest drinking day.

[1] NHS Digital (December 2016), ‘Health Survey for England, 2015 [NS]’

[2] 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

[3] Ibid

[4] Davoren MP, Shiely F, Byrne M, and Perry IJ (2015)., ‘Hazardous alcohol consumption among university students in Ireland: a cross-sectional study’, BMJ Open, 5(1), e006045

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

[6] ONS (March 2010), ‘General Lifestyle Survey, 2008’, Table 2.3

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

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

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

[10] 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>

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

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

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

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

[15] The Financial Times (2014), ‘The other glass ceiling: women winemakers’, <http://on.ft.com/2mWWCXe>

[16] Dunstan S, ‘Chapter 2: Drinking’, in General Lifestyle Survey Overview: A report on the 2010 General Lifestyle Survey, ONS, p. 16

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

[18] National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (November 2016), ‘Alcohol Statistics from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS), 1 April 2015 – 31 March 2016’

[19] Daily Mail (January 2013), ‘Soaring number of career women 'killed by alcohol' and figure is rising faster than men’, <http://dailym.ai/2me40zs>