Changing trends in women’s drinking

Women and alcohol

A new factsheet from the Institute of Alcohol Studies does a great job in summarising the changing trends in women’s drinking; in particular the continued closing of the gender gap in terms of levels of consumption.

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). 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.

How much and how often are women drinking?

The 2014 Opinions and Lifestyle Survey 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%.

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, with this figure shifting to 8–9% from 2011 to 2014. The proportion of women who are teetotal has remained relatively stable from 2005 to 2014, at between 23–26%.

Data from the Health Survey for England shows that 16% of women in England drink more than the Chief Medical Officers’ weekly low risk guideline amount (no more than 14 units a week). Interestingly, it is women aged 55-64 who are most likely to drink at this level; with almost one quarter (24%) doing so.

Public Health England reports that  in 2014 12% of women in England, and 13% in Great Britain 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.

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.

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.

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.

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%).

The OLS in 2014 also 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).

Alcohol-related hospital admissions

The rate of alcohol-related admissions for women to NHS hospitals in England has continually risen over the last decade (see here for data on drug-related admissions):

Why are women drinking more?

The IAS report discusses a number of theories: the empty nest theory of the 1970s which assumed that women started to drink more when their children left home; the ladette culture theory of the early 2000s which sought to explain the rapid rise of female binge drinking and a discussion of how an excessive drinking culture 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 report also notes that the pay gap between men and women has closed (to an extent) and that there has been an increase in alcoholic drink marketing campaigns expressly targeted at women.

Protecting women from alcohol-related harm

The report concludes by sharing five key measures advocated by Alcohol Concern:

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

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