Alcohol industry marketing is increasingly targeting women – especially through sport 

Late last year, global harmful commodity giant Diageo, announced that its Irish alcohol brand Guinness was set to sponsor not only Ireland’s Six Nations male rugby team, but the women’s also. 

This was regurgitated in the media as a positive for the burgeoning Irish women’s team, but the question really must be asked – why? Why would any right-thinking person believe it’s a good thing that a global alcohol company sponsors a team that girls and women, in particular, look up to? 

Let’s be clear, Diageo isn’t really interested, as it states in its press release, in trying to “create a better society through diversity and inclusion.”  

They want more women to drink more Guinness. And their marketing tactics – using Kim Kardashian and messages of so-called female empowerment, are working. According to Diageo, it’s a good thing that in Britain the number of women drinking Guinness is up 24 per cent in the 25-44 year age group. Of course it is good for Diageo, but not for women. 

We are through the looking glass when it comes to the drinks industry and health messaging. The question must be asked – why does media uncritically report on the alcohol industry as though it’s some benign friendly business that makes us all feel good, when in fact, it is one that is killing us? 

This International Women’s Day, the World Health Organisation is urging governments to consider gender when developing alcohol policies, warning that industry marketing increasingly targets women who face greater health risks than men from lower levels of drinking. This is an increasingly important message given the insidious way alcohol brands market everywhere, all of the time, with specific messages for various groups of people.

Of course, gender equality and women’s increased social and economic independence are to be celebrated, but when it comes to alcohol and gender, equal levels of consumption are a false equality.  

In 2014, the rate of binge drinking among Irish adult women was the highest in the EU, while 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. 

This is risky because women tend to have lower body weights, less body water and higher percentages of body fat than men, and so don’t process alcohol as efficiently. Therefore, women are more vulnerable to tissue damage, cirrhosis of the liver and alcohol dependence. 

In Ireland, and in other high-income countries, alcoholic liver disease (ALD) rates are rising with the greatest level of increase among 15-to-34-year-olds, who historically had the lowest rates of liver disease.  A 2017 US study found that alcohol use disorder among women skyrocketed 83% between 2002 and 2013, while a UK study from the same year found that alcohol-related deaths among women reached the highest numbers since 2008. Sadly, this situation has only got worse in recent years with liver specialists warning that the numbers of Irish women in hospital with severe liver damage had doubled during the pandemic. 

It’s estimated that alcohol causes at least 200 breast cancers every year in Ireland, but worryingly, recent research from the Health Research Board indicates that only 21% of the population correctly identify the link between alcohol and breast cancer

Looking at this bleak health data, the question that arises, is why this industry is allowed to sell a story in any way it pleases, when the product being sold is so harmful – a group 1 carcinogen in the same category as cigarettes and asbestos?  

In Ireland alone, the annual spend on alcohol marketing is now conservatively estimated at €115m. This state has modest laws that aim to protect children from being exposed to alcohol advertising, but what about women, who are being relentlessly pursued by an industry only interested in profit? We are keen to have a zero-tolerance approach to domestic abuse in this country, yet we also know that big sporting occasions are linked to an increase in domestic violence because of alcohol. Allowing alcohol brands to practically own a sport such as Diageo does with Irish rugby sends the wrong message when we know that alcohol is, when you take the spin away, a psychoactive, toxic substance.  

We hear a lot from the alcohol industry about drinking responsibly, but what about trading responsibly? The alcohol industry stridently resists all attempts to restrict its advertising. In Ireland we have legislation passed in 2018 to control the content of alcohol advertising so that industry myths should be stripped out and comprehensive health warnings included. However, six years on and many deaths later, there is no sign of this legislation being commenced.  

Harmful commodity products such as tobacco, unhealthy food, fossil fuel, and alcohol are responsible for at least a third of global deaths per year. That’s why the global industries that produce, market and sell these products must be heavily regulated and monitored.  

As set out in the Lancet’s special series on the commercial determinants of health, it is up to governments to invest in a world where human and planetary health is always prioritised over profit – and it is for civil society (NGOs) to unify against the tactical battles and strategies that hamper efforts to protect people’s health.  In response to this call to action by global health experts, Alcohol Action Ireland is doing its part to call out the tactics of the alcohol industry as it attempts to stymie proven policy solutions that offset the harm caused by their products. 

Real empowerment is opening women’s eyes to the tactics of the alcohol industry, which come at great cost, not just to women – but to all individuals in society.