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Why are women drinking more?

Alcohol misuse among women in modern life has been a major public health and social issue in recent decades.

A 1981 government report on women and drinking observed that:

'… in 1971, for every admission of a woman to a mental illness hospital for alcohol-induced illness, there were three admissions for men, but by 1981, the ratio was one female admission to two male admissions'... In the early 70s, for each woman convicted of drunkenness there were 14 or 15 men: by 1981 the ratio was one woman to twelve men. The ratios fell most notably among women under 29'.[1]

At that time, it was noted that while nearly all women (92%) drank sometimes, 'just over 70% of women drank less than 5 units a week... (fewer) than 1% had over 35 units', which is commonly regarded as a hazardous level of consumption by today's standards.[2]

Subsequent governments focused their attentions on encouraging sensible drinking among the population. But the rise of alcohol misuse among women gathered apace, mainly attributed to cultural and socioeconomic changes, the increased availability of alcohol in the off-trade, and advertising campaigns run by the alcohol industry targeting women whose lifestyles were influenced by such factors.

As a result, survey data showed that in 2010, a greater proportion of women (3%) now consume alcohol to the same hazardous levels than was the case in the 1970s and 80s.[3]

Empty Nest Syndrome

In the 1970s and 80s, public anxiety appeared to focus on alcohol's relationship with the psychological condition 'empty nest syndrome'. The idea was that the rise in women drinking to excess was driven by feelings of sadness and loss affecting parents, especially mothers, when their children leave home.

This implied that the most serious female alcohol problems were located among the middle aged and middle classes. However, over time, fears began to surface over a younger cohort of female drinkers – from both the middle and working classes – who were increasingly appearing to adopt the mainly male habits of drinking and drunkenness, leading to increasing counts of aggressive and anti-social behaviour.

Ladette culture

A 2003 newspaper article based on a study by Datamonitor revealed that the binge drinking culture was 'on the rise' among young women. The number of litres per capita of alcohol consumed by 18 to 24-year-old females rose by 31 litres from 172l in 1999 to 203l in 2003, nearly twice the UK average for women at the time (108l).[4]

This growing trend was exacerbated by legislation from the 2003 Licensing Act, which granted businesses 24-hour licences to sell alcohol. The emergence of young women who regularly binge drank to levels comparable with their male counterparts became so ingrained in the British public's consciousness that the term 'ladette' was invented to describe those young women who “behave in a boisterously assertive or crude manner and engage in heavy drinking sessions”.[5]

In line with this, a recent study of UK print and online news coverage found that young women’s ‘binge’ drinking is covered more frequently than the same behaviour in men. The study also found that such articles tended to characterise women as “out of control, putting themselves in danger, harming their physical appearance and burdening men,” while more moralistic descriptions were used about women’s appearances.[6] It is possible such a focus on young women’s public drinking may cause women of other age groups to assume their drinking is unproblematic.

Women in the workplace

The culture of drinking to excess also made its way into the workplace, where marked changes in attitudes and behaviour towards alcohol saw women in various professions taking advantage of the increased number of opportunities to drink than open to previous generations. The ubiquity of drinking in some workplaces and professional settings has been noted.[7] Furthermore, with the number of women in work at historically high levels, and the gender pay gap narrowing over recent decades, the notion of women sharing a drink with colleagues after work has become more socially acceptable.[8]

It is for reasons such as these that the workplace has had an important influence on female drinking habits; GLS statistics show that in 2011, women in managerial and professional positions in particular not only consumed more units of alcohol than the average female, but also drank more frequently during the week (see figure 9).

The OLS in 2014 noted 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).[9]


Women and education

The link between status and consumption appears to go further than the drinking habits of female high-fliers. There is evidence to suggest an association between education and consumption levels. A 2010 study based on the drinking habits of individuals born in 1970 found that the more educated women are, the more likely they are to drink alcohol on most days and to report having problems due to their drinking patterns. The relationship is stronger for females than males.[10]

The authors offer a set of explanations for the positive association between education and drinking behaviours:[11]

  • a more intensive social life that encourages alcohol intake;
  • a greater engagement into traditionally male spheres of life, a greater social acceptability of alcohol use and abuse;
  • more exposure to alcohol use during formative years;
  • greater postponement of childbearing and its responsibilities among the better educated, and smaller underreporting

Lifestyles

A 2015 study found that female drinkers in early midlife may use alcohol as a route to assert their identity away from traditionally female responsibilities such as caring for others, and to “return temporarily to a younger, carefree version of themselves”.[12]

Women and alcohol advertising 

The proliferation of the drinks market with alcoholic beverages designed and advertised specifically towards women has also contributed to increased consumption levels over the years. A 2008 report by the European Centre for Monitoring Alcohol Marketing [EUCAM] noted the changes in the drinks industry, observing that executives of several companies saw the increasing affluence of women as an opportunity to develop a marketing strategy aimed at attracting more women to spend their disposable income on alcoholic beverages.[13]

Typically “female” drinks are produced to taste sweeter and have a lower alcohol content (Alcohol By Volume) than male ones; examples include fruit beers, wines, and liqueurs. Features of the product are highlighted that may be expected to appeal to a female audience, such as being “bloat resistant”.[14] Female role models – often celebrities – and attractive males are hired to advertise them, portraying the products as fashionable, glamorous and desirable for independent and fun-loving women. Some products are supported by partnerships with other female-focused brands such as hair care brands,[15] and in some cases, alcoholic drinks are advertised alongside items such as handbags, make-up, and heeled shoes, in an attempt to associate the brand more closely with the lifestyle of an aspiring young female (for more information on advertising of alcohol products, please read our Marketing factsheet).[16]

What can be done to help protect women from alcohol harm?

Women are drinking more alcohol than ever before, and the long-term upward trend shows little sign of abating. It has also been observed that gender may also impact alcohol addiction treatment experiences.[17], [18] The negative health and social consequences have drawn the attention of the medical profession, the criminal and justice system, and politicians in recent years. Non Governmental Organisations working in the field of alcohol policy have stressed the importance of all parties working together to develop a coherent strategy to combat harmful drinking among women. Alcohol Concern in particular advocate the following measures:[19]

  • A high profile health promotion campaign that both informs women about guidelines for sensible drinking and focuses on the benefits of moderation
  • Media campaigns designed to reduce the stigma surrounding women's drinking
  • Evidence based data on women’s drinking habits particularly in relation to risk taking behaviour
  • Prevention and screening programmes to intervene before the onset of severe alcohol problems
  • Women focused alcohol services

 

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[1] Office for National Statistics (ONS) (September 2011), ‘Women and Drinking: An Enquiry on Behalf of the Department of Health and Social Security (1981)’, in 'From underwear to aircraft noise: logging 70 years of social change' <http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/mro/news-release/seventy-years-of-social-surveys/socsurv02092011-nr.html>

[2] ONS (September 2011), 'From underwear to aircraft noise: logging 70 years of social change'

[3] ONS (March 2012), Drinking Tables in ‘General Lifestyle Survey (GLS)’, Table 2.2 <http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=tcm:77-226919>

[4] The Guardian (October 2003), 'Ladette culture leads to rise in binge drinking' <http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2003/oct/17/drugsandalcohol.medicineandhealth>

[5] Oxford Dictionaries, 'Definition of ladette' <http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/ladette?q=ladette>

[6] Patterson C, Emslie C, Mason O, Fergie G, and Hilton S (2016)., ‘Content analysis of UK newspaper and online news representations of women's and men's ‘binge’ drinking: a challenge for communicating evidence-based messages about single-episodic drinking?’, BMJ Open, 6(12), e013124

[7] Romo LK, Dinsmore DR, Connolly TL, and Davis CN (2015)., ‘An examination of how professionals who abstain from alcohol communicatively negotiate their non-drinking identity’, Journal of Applied Communication Research, 43(1), pp. 91–111

[8] ONS (March 2011), 'Mothers in the labour market' <http://www.nomisweb.co.uk/published/stories/story.asp?id=3>

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

[10] Borgonovi F, Huerta MC, (2010), 'Education, Alcohol Use and Abuse among Young Adults in Britain', Social Science & Medicine, 71: 1, pp. 143–151, p. 17

[11] Borgonovi F, Huerta MC, (2010), Social Science & Medicine, 71: 1, pp. 143–151, p. 17

[12] Emslie C, Hunt K, and Lyons A, (2015), ‘Transformation and time-out: The role of alcohol in identity construction among Scottish women in early midlife’, International Journal of Drug Policy, 26(5), pp. 437–445

[13] European Centre for Monitoring Alcohol Marketing [EUCAM], (February 2008), 'Women – The new market: Trends in Alcohol Marketing' <http://www.eucam.info/eucam/home/trends_in_alcohol_marketing.html>

[14] Business Insider UK, (2014), ‘Brewers Desperately Want Women To Drink More Beer — And They’ve Learned That Pink Beer Isn’t The Answer’,

<http://uk.businessinsider.com/brewers-marketing-female-friendly-beer-2014-10?r=US&IR=T>

[15] Ibid

[16] EUCAM, (February 2008), 'Women – The new market', p. 9 <http://www.eucam.info/eucam/home/trends_in_alcohol_marketing.html>

[17] Kelly JF, and Hoeppner BB, (2013), ‘Does Alcoholics Anonymous work differently for men and women? A moderated multiple-mediation analysis in a large clinical sample.’, Drug and alcohol dependence, 130(1), pp. 186–193

[18] BBC News, (November 2016), ’So drunk my daughter, 12, made my meals' <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-37823764>

[19] Alcohol Concern, (December 2008), 'Factsheet: Women and alcohol - a cause for concern?' <http://www.alcoholconcern.org.uk/publications/factsheets/women-factsheet>