Women have caught up with men in the amount of alcohol they drink and are doing increasing amounts of damage to their health as a result, according to a global study that looked at the consumption habits of 4m people over a period of over a century.
The Guardian reports that the change is partly the result of successful marketing campaigns and the creation of sweeter products aimed at young women or girls, as well as cuts in price, say health campaigners. Some studies have even suggested that younger women may be out-drinking men, according to the study’s authors.
The researchers from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre of the University of New South Wales, Australia, and Columbia University in New York say the conclusion is that public health efforts need to focus more on women.
“These results have implications for the framing and targeting of alcohol use prevention and intervention programmes. Alcohol use and alcohol-use disorders have historically been viewed as a male phenomenon. The present study calls this assumption into question and suggests that young women in particular should be the target of concerted efforts to reduce the impact of substance use and related harms,” the report quotes the researchers as saying.
Their analysis looks at the convergence of drinking habits between men and women over time, from 1891 to 2014. It pools the results of 68 international studies, published since 1980, to look at the changing ratio of male to female drinking over the years.
Historically, far more men drank alcohol than women. Men born between 1891 and 1910 were twice as likely as their female peers to drink alcohol and more than three times as likely to be involved in problematic use or use leading to harms. But in all three respects, this had almost reached parity among those born between 1991 and 2000.
Women’s drinking has increased for a number of reasons. Those who have succeeded in obtaining jobs that were once the preserve of men have joined – or found it necessary to become part of – the after-work drinking culture. Office for National Statistics figures from 2011 show that women in management and professional jobs drink more than the average woman and drink more on weekdays.
But drops in the price, which have led to wine and beer becoming regular items in the supermarket shopping trolley and part of everyday life at home, have also been a factor, alongside deliberate marketing targeted at women.
Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: “Historically women did not drink that much. There has definitely been a proactive effort to entice women to drink more.” Some of the drinks now available have been targeted at young women who “pre-load” while getting together to dress and do their make-up before a night out. Three large glasses of wine can be the equivalent of nine units, she added.
Women’s bodies do not tolerate alcohol as well as men’s, however, because they have a higher fat to water ratio. Because they have less water, the alcohol in their system remains more concentrated. They also have smaller livers than men, which makes it harder to process alcohol safely.
Objective: Historically, alcohol use and related harms are more prevalent in men than in women. However, emerging evidence suggests the epidemiology of alcohol use is changing in younger cohorts. The current study aimed to systematically summarise published literature on birth cohort changes in male-to-female ratios in indicators of alcohol use and related harms.
Methods: We identified 68 studies that met inclusion criteria. We calculated male-to-female ratios for 3 broad categories of alcohol use and harms (any alcohol use, problematic alcohol use and alcohol-related harms) stratified by 5-year birth cohorts ranging from 1891 to 2001, generating 1568 sex ratios. Random-effects meta-analyses produced pooled sex ratios within these 3 categories separately for each birth cohort.
Findings: There was a linear decrease over time in the sex ratio for all 3 categories of alcohol use and related harms. Among those born in the early 1900s, males were 2.2 (95% CI 1.9 to 2.5) times more likely than females to consume alcohol, 3.0 (95% CI 1.5 to 6.0) times more likely to drink alcohol in ways suggestive of problematic use and 3.6 (95% CI 0.4 to 30.3) times more likely to experience alcohol-related harms. Among cohorts born in the late 1900s, males were 1.1 (95% CI 1.1 to 1.2) times more likely than females to consume alcohol, 1.2 (95% CI 1.1 to 1.4) times more likely to drink alcohol in ways suggestive of problematic use and 1.3 (95% CI 1.2 to 1.3) times more likely to experience alcohol-related harms.
Conclusions: Findings confirm the closing male–female gap in indicators of alcohol use and related harms. The closing male–female gap is most evident among young adults, highlighting the importance of prospectively tracking young male and female cohorts as they age into their 30s, 40s and beyond.
Tim Slade, Cath Chapman, Wendy Swift, Katherine Keyes, Zoe Tonks, Maree Teesson