Research — 25 October 2016

Young women are now as likely to be drinkers as men and face similar levels of problem drinking and related harm, researchers say.

binge-drinking

Women born after 1981 could even be more likely to drink than their male counterparts, said Dr Tim Slade, the lead author of an international data analysis published in the medical journal BMJ Open on Tuesday.

“In some of our data, we saw that the ratio was less than one, meaning that in some estimates the rate of drinking in men was lower …,” he said.

Dr Slade and his team from the University of NSW National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, looked at 68 international studies that mapped drinking patterns, which spanned more than a century.

They discovered the gap in rates of drinking between the sexes was narrowing. Among people born between 1881 and 1910, men were twice as likely to drink as women; down to near parity between the sexes for those born from 1991 to 2000.

The researchers believe this “sex convergence” was more likely due to more women drinking, than men drinking less.

The pattern was the same for problem drinking, where the gender gap fell from 3 to 1.2, and for associated harms, where it fell from 3.6 to 1.3 over the century.

When she got to university, Heather Wilson, 33, had joined a lacrosse team and was hanging out at the pub during the week with a bunch of men who played rugby.

She’d been drinking alcohol since she was 15, but university was when it became a competitive sport.

“I was tolerating just as many beers as the boys were and then it became a challenge,” Ms Wilson said.  “Guys would say to me ‘I bet you can’t drink as much as me’, and I’d say ‘watch me’.”

Author Jill Stark, who wrote High Sobriety, a book about Australia’s drinking culture, said there was a “ladette culture” in which women felt compelled to keep up with their male counterparts in the UK and Australia.

The alcohol industry has also become more inclusive over the past century, with marketing that addresses women and younger drinkers, she said.

“If you remember the six o’clock swill in Melbourne, it was very much a working man’s thing to go to the pub and get drunk and then go home, and women weren’t included in that,” Ms Stark, a former Fairfax Media journalist, said.

“When women started joining the workforce more and we have a push for equality amongst the genders, the industry realised that there was an untapped market there to sell to.”

Psychologist Stefan Gruenert, chief executive at Odyssey House, has been talking about alcohol with sporting clubs in regional Victoria for the past five years.  He’s noticed young women catching up to men in terms of how they approach alcohol.

“I think that matches the closing of the gender gap for a lot of factors, some positive in terms of opportunities and education and sport, which has been great, and here’s an example where that gap has been closing in a negative way,” he said.

Earlier this month, the the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s 10-year survey of the nation’s drinking habits revealed. Australians were consuming less alcohol, from an average 10.8 litres of pure alcohol per person in 2008–09, to 9.7 litres in 2013–14.

While the overall rate of drinking dropped over the past decade, the AIHW warns that excessive alcohol use remains the biggest drug problem in Australia.

Ms Wilson stopped drinking heavily when she was about 27 and joined the healthy drinking movement Hello Sunday Morning.

She still drinks the odd glass of red with dinner but now she also competes in triathlons.

This piece by Rania Spooner was first seen on ‘The Sydney Morning Herold’ on October 25, 2016.

                    

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