Irish women are now drinking more, and more often, than previous generations.
According to data from the Global Burden of Disease Study in 2016, Irish women are near the top of the table worldwide for heavy drinking, ranking seventh. In 2014, the rate of binge drinking among adult women in Ireland was the highest in the EU. A separate study published in 2019 by the Lancet, found that Irish adolescent girls are among the highest binge drinkers in the world, ranking third.
These trends are concerning given that women face increased risk of health-related harms from alcohol than men and considering that women do not need to drink as much alcohol as men to run the equivalent risk of developing any of the health harms associated with alcohol use.
The impact of this change in drinking patterns has already shown in a number of worrying trends, including a rapid increase in the number of young women presenting with serious alcohol-related conditions such as liver cirrhosis and cancer.
Particular to women is the risk of breast cancer. Drinking one standard alcoholic drink a day is associated with a 9% increase in the risk of developing breast cancer, while 3 -6 drinks a day increases the risk by 41%.
Another issue regarding women and alcohol is the lack of awareness among women of the risks associated with drinking alcohol during pregnancy. The HSE gives clear advice on this, however, a study of 43,318 women who attended the Coombe Women’s Hospital found that although roughly half of the women surveyed said they gave up smoking during pregnancy, only 13.2% stopped drinking.
Factors influencing changing drinking patterns
There are a number of factors that have influenced changes in drinking patterns. Alcohol has become more available and more affordable – at current prices, a woman can reach her low-risk weekly limit for about €6.30 a week.
Alcohol marketing has also become more focused and intense in targeting women, often with drinks high in alcohol content such as wine and spirits.
Alcohol marketing has been adapted and tailored to target women specifically. Marketing strategies have been developed to appeal to the female market. Alcohol advertisements, which historically objectified women to sell alcohol to men, now seek to align alcohol brands with fun, female friendships, empowerment and gender equality. The alcohol industry has identified specific occasions such as International Women’s Day – a celebration of women’s achievements across the world and a call to action to advance gender equality – as opportunities to boost their profits and associate themselves with such positive narratives. Alcohol brands are also known to engage in ‘pink-washing’, whereby they promote and sponsor breast cancer awareness efforts, despite that research tells us that alcohol consumption increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
A recently published paper, Pretty in Pink’ and ‘Girl Power’: An analysis of the targeting and representation of women in alcohol brand marketing on Facebook and Instagram, was the first study to explore the extent and nature of gendered alcohol marketing on Facebook and Instagram. It considered how brands target, represent and engage women in the context of contemporary feminism.
It found that brands reflect and reproduce important aspects of feminine identities and women’s day to day lives, to promote alcohol use and encourage consumers to interact and co-create content. The study concludes that claims by brands of a commitment to equality are at odds with the known harms related to alcohol consumption that contribute to the widening of health and social inequalities. This makes the implementation of legislation around labelling of alcohol products even more important.
In order to inform women – and all citizens – about the dangers of alcohol, the Public Health Alcohol Act makes provision that labels on alcohol products sold in Ireland should include a cancer warning and health warnings in relation to consuming alcohol during pregnancy. This provision should be enacted as soon as possible and is in line with the EU’s Beating Cancer strategy, a goal of which is to take action on mandatory labelling of the list of ingredients, nutrition declaration and the ‘inclusion of health warnings’ on the label of alcoholic beverages.