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Problematic drinking by women can be overlooked as they do not drink as much, or as often, as men. Yet alcohol has a greater effect on women. For biological reasons women cannot process alcohol as quickly or as efficiently as men. This means that for women, drinking is more hazardous, even when they drink the same amount as men.
At higher levels of consumption, the risk of developing an alcohol-related disease increases more quickly for women. In fact, a study published in 2012 stated that alcohol dependence for women is twice as deadly as for men, and that alcohol-dependent women die at four times the rate of non-dependent women. At the same time, women aged 18–24 are most likely to drink in way that exposes them to harm in a single session.
This study highlighted that the consumption of alcohol by women was increasing. This led to a flurry of media articles asking whether women were trying to be more like men.
In Australia there is some concern about the increase in women’s consumption, especially in those aged 18–24. It’s worth asking why women are drinking at risky levels, especially when it is at a higher rate than in previous times.
Fifty years ago, pubs closed at 6pm, did not open on Sundays and did not admit women into the bar; there were fewer bottle shops; and most restaurants were BYO. Beer was the favourite liquor consumed by Australians.
Fast forward to now and we have over 53,000 liquor licences and can get a drink pretty well anywhere, any time. We have a greater choice of drinks, prices are quite low, and wine has replaced beer as the liquor of choice.
Women have also entered the workforce in greater numbers and have become financially independent, alcohol is more available economically and physically, and women are drinking more. Some researchers call this ‘female imitation’, while others say that higher levels of stress may be the cause of higher consumption.
Along with more gender equality and the increase in disposable income, we have to factor in targeted marketing campaigns. Alcohol companies actively target females – girls and women – through advertising campaigns, low-calorie wine and beer, ready-to-drinks and alcopops.
Enticements have changed – once upon a time men were rewarded for their hard work and hard-won thirst; now women are being targeted with supposedly diet-friendly alcoholic drinks.
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.¹
James D Mosher in 2012 presented a case study in the American Journal of Public Health in which he outlined the response of giant alcohol company, Diageo, to a decline in their spirits market. To develop a product to appeal to women, they came up with the following plan:
The result? “Smirnoff Ice advertising shot up from 2% to 50% of all alcopop advertising between 2000 and 2001”.
The next result? Other alcopop producers imitated Diageo in order to compete, and media advertising expenditure on alcopops zoomed from $27.5 million to $196.3 million between 2000 and 2002.
So our liberalisation of liquor licensing, increased economic equity, and targeted marketing by manufacturers have all contributed to the increased consumption by women and the increased risk faced by all women – and young women especially – from drinking.
How can we alert women to this problem so they take notice and don’t dismiss it as condescending, patronising or sexist?