This International Women’s Day, we ask, are women getting the public health messages they need around alcohol, or is the industry noise all they can hear?
It’s a day to celebrate the social, economic and political achievements of women, but increasingly International Women’s Day has become a space captured by commercial interests seeking to sell a message.
It’s no surprise then, that the global alcohol industry has for years been using the occasion as yet another opportunity to sell an alcohol-laced story to women.
Women, who traditionally drunk less than men, have become an important growth opportunity for Big Alcohol, and how they market their products with women in mind has changed radically in recent years. Instead of using women as props in beer adverts, the industry knows this is just not cool anymore. What is? Empowerment, equality, achievement, success. All of the ingredients that make good ads for men – and now, they want women to know they celebrate us too.
Some examples: Last year on International Women’s Day (IWD), Diageo launched a series videos featuring senior professionals talking about the work and personal challenges they face as women. The previous year, Smirnoff launched a feature in partnership with Spotify aimed at allowing users to see what percentage of female artists they have listened to in the last six months and then providing a playlist where artists of both genders are equally represented. The clever tagline is – Do you listen to women?
It doesn’t have to be IWD for women to be targeted because of their gender. It could just be wine o’clock. Because as we all know from the endless memes and Tik-Tok videos, wine – aka ‘mummy juice’ is now a socially acceptable coping mechanism for women trying to balance work and home life.
But don’t be fooled that all of these social media posts are organic – from the people, for the people. A study in 2019 looking at young Instagram influencers found that two thirds of them posted about alcohol and regularly featured alcohol brands in their posts, but more often than not, they did not disclose a paid partnership.
Some people might at this point roll their eyes and say –so what? Life is hard enough, can’t we just enjoy our wine and funny videos, paid partnership or not?
It’s true that on the surface it might appear there is nothing wrong with feel good adverts that raise women up, or self-deprecating humour in social media posts about the stresses of juggling the modern woman’s life. But let’s be clear: these tactics have stark real world health implications because as much as the industry likes to tell us otherwise, when it comes to alcohol, men and women simply are not equal.
While women still drink less than men, we know from the 2016 Global Burden of Disease Study that Irish women rank seventh in the table for worldwide for heavy drinking.
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 first world 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.
It’s estimated that alcohol causes at least 200 breast cancers every year in Ireland, but worryingly, a 2016 Healthy Ireland survey found that just 16% of women aged 15-24 were aware that alcohol can cause breast cancer.
Looking at this bleak health data, the question that arises, is why 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, direct alcohol advertising rose from €25.4 million to €48.1 million between 1996 to 2019, while the annual spend on alcohol marketing is now conservatively estimated at €115m.
It might surprise many to learn that we do in fact have laws on our statute books that begin to tackle this issue head on. But they remain unimplemented and there are no dates regarding when they will be enacted.
The Public Health Alcohol Act, a progressive piece of legislation that is the envy of public health officials in other jurisdictions, includes measures to restrict the content of alcohol advertising and ensure that alcohol products have labels with clear health warnings, including cancer and consuming alcohol during pregnancy.
As we wait for politicians to get the message that, as with smoking, we want our health to be protected from global industries, we must take action to continuously remind them why this is so important.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. We are calling on women to take action in whatever way they can. Whether it’s by lending support to a social media campaign #DontPinkMyDrink that calls out Big Alcohol and its marketing tactics, or simply by getting a conversation going with peers about how advertising glamorises alcohol and targets women. Another way to challenge the status quo would be to let your public representative know that you want the Public Health Alcohol Act to be implemented – or at least know when it will be implemented in full.
If alcohol really was packaged and advertised responsibly – instead of the current pretence, we wouldn’t be hearing about equality and empowerment and ‘gin o‘clock, because your worth it,’ but cancer and other health risks.
It’s not a popular story, but it’s the truth and it’s what we really deserve on International Women’s Day.
Jennifer Hough, Policy | Research Officer.