Irish women are now drinking more, and more often, than previous generations. This trend is concerning given that women face increased risk of health-related harms from alcohol that men
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 Irish adult women 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.
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.
Why are women at increased health risk from alcohol?
- While the gap between male and female alcohol consumption is closing, women experience greater health risks from alcohol than men and the onset of alcohol-related health problems begins earlier.
- Women are more vulnerable to tissue damage, cirrhosis of the liver and alcohol dependence. Alcoholic liver disease (ALD) rates are increasing rapidly in Ireland and the greatest level of increase is among 15-to-34-year-olds, who historically had the lowest rates of liver disease.
- Women’s bodies process alcohol differently resulting in higher concentrations of alcohol in their blood when drinking equal amounts of alcohol to men. Women tend to have lower body weights, less body water and higher percentages of body fat than men – meaning they don’t process alcohol as efficiently as men.
- A man who drinks six or more standard drinks a day is 13 times more likely to develop cirrhosis of the liver compared to a non-drinker: a woman needs only four standard drinks a day to increase her risk to the same degree. That’s about a half bottle of wine.
- Stigma due to gender stereotypes around female harmful and hazardous use of alcohol may act to prevent young women seeking help or treatment at an early stage, research suggests
Alcohol consumption and cancer among Irish women
- 12% of all breast cancers in Ireland are associated with alcohol consumption.
- 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%.
- Among Irish women, four in ten (40.9%) alcohol-related cancer deaths were due to breast cancer between 2001 and 2010.
- 4.6% of female cancer deaths in Ireland were attributable to alcohol between 2001 and 2010 – that’s 1,700 women.
- In Ireland the proportion of alcohol-related deaths from cancer is higher than the European average, at 38.8% for Irish women (versus 31% in Europe).
- The projected number of new cases of alcohol-related cancers in the Republic of Ireland is expected to double by the year 2020 for women.
- In European women, the main causes of alcohol related death are cirrhosis (37%) and cancer (31% – with breast cancer alone accounting for 21%).
Targetting of women in alcohol marketing
The alcohol industry have increasingly targeted women in marketing campaigns in recent times. Women drink less and in lower volumes than men on average and have therefore been identified as a growth market.
Alcohol marketing has been adapted and tailored to target women specifically. Products have been developed to appeal to women, such as the ‘pinkening’ and sweetening of drinks, adding fruit flavours, and offering low calorie options. Such strategies aimed at enticing women to buy and consume alcohol are often based on stereotypical notions of femininity and gender.
Marketing strategies have also 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 have 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.
Further efforts to exploit the female market include the sponsorship of women’s sport. A recent example of this is Diageo’s ‘Liberty Fields’ campaign which was promoted by the Guinness brand. The campaign sought to highlight the determination of pioneering Japanese women to overcome adversity to advance their participation in rugby.
Alcohol advertising and sponsorship is also noticeable in TV programmes aimed at women. For example, the wine brand Santa Rita is official sponsor of popular RTE dramas Homeland, and The Good Wife, and Striking Out, all programmes with a predominantly female demographic.The power of social media platforms is also being harnessed by alcohol brands, with predominantly female influencers being paid to communicate positive messages and images about alcohol.
Campaigns such as #DontPinkMyDrink by Alcohol Focus Scotland represent efforts to call out aggressive marketing of alcohol to women.
Irish women’s alcohol consumption
The Health Research Board’s National Alcohol Diary Survey found that:
- Half (51.4%) of females started drinking alcohol before the age of 18 years.
- Over one-fifth (22.8%) of female drinkers, who consumed alcohol in the week prior to the survey, drank more than the HSE’s recommended low-risk weekly drinking guidelines (i.e. more than 11 standard drinks).
- This measure was highest in the 18 to 24 years age group, with 39% of young women drinking more than the recommended weekly guidelines in the week prior to the survey.
- One-in-ten (9.1%) women consumed more than the recommended weekly guidelines in a single day in the week prior to the survey.
- This measure was, once again, highest in the 18 to 24 years age group, with one-in-five (22.5%) young women drinking more than the recommended weekly guidelines in a single day.
- Wine was the most common type of alcohol consumed by women aged over 25 years (58.9%), and spirits were the most common type of alcohol consumed by young women aged 18 to 24 years (59.9%).
- The Health Research Board found that one-in-four women (24.1%) experienced harm as a result of their own alcohol use, while 15.6% of women reported experiencing harm as a result of someone else’s alcohol use.
- Women account for a quarter of all alcohol-related hospital discharges, but among those aged 17 and under, the proportion of discharges from hospital is almost half, at 47%.
Girls, Women and Alcohol: The changing nature of female alcohol consumption in Ireland
This conference hosted by Alcohol Action Ireland in 2015 saw international and Irish speakers examine the factors influencing the changing culture of drinking among Irish girls and women, and the harms they are experiencing as a result.
Dr Triona McCarthy, Consultant in Public Health Medicine, speaks about alcohol and cancer:
Dr Orla Crosbie, Consultant Gastroenterologist, speaks about the health impacts of alcohol
You can view the videos of all the speakers here.