Fears as liberated women hit the bottle

August 22, 1997

Women drinkers on rise

A fundamental rethink of the support system for alcoholics is "long overdue", as excess drinking among women begins to catch up with problem drinking levels among men, research from Edinburgh University's alcohol and health research group has concluded.

While the proportion of men drinking to excess has stabilised in recent years, the number of women drinking above the recommended levels is steadily increasing, according to Moira Plant, deputy director of the group.

"We are going to have to seriously consider the way we treat people with drinking problems and be much more sensitive to the specific needs of women," she said. "Some GPs don't even ask women about their drinking habits, there is such a perception that it is a problem only for men."

The proportion of women drinking more than the Government's recommended levels has increased from 9 per cent in 1994 to 13 per cent in 1996. Men's levels have plateaued at per cent, according to the Office of National Statistics. "This is the first time there has been a clear upward trend in women's drinking levels when men's levels have stabilised," Dr Plant said.

She believes that a deep cultural change has contributed to the increase. Women have more disposable income than in the past, and have more freedom, waiting longer on average before having children.

The rise of "alcopops", alcoholic drinks that taste and usually look like soft drinks, has also been linked to the rise in alcohol consumption among women. Dr Plant said there was not enough data to confirm this, as alcopops were only introduced in the UK in 1995. But she said that she had come across "worrying" cases where women in pubs were deceitfully being given alcoholic lemonade as a mixer with spirits, by men who wanted to get them drunk, so they were often ignorantly taking a double dose of alcohol.

Female emancipation in general had also had an impact, Dr Plant said. "Drinking among women has become more socially acceptable since the war. One revealing statistic is that women over the age of 65 - those who were in their thirties during the 1960s - have shown the biggest increase in excess drinking. It has only recently become acceptable for women to drink in pubs without men," she said.

The proportion of women over 65 drinking to excess increased from 3 per cent in 1984 to 7 per cent in 1994. But although "liberation" has instigated the increase in women's alcohol consumption, there is still a stigma associated with women drinking which is making it difficult to collect adequate data on their habits and is blocking medical and psychological support, said Dr Plant.

"Although men's drinking problems are associated with financial difficulties and work pressure, women's are still associated with relationship difficulties. Women with problems, I've found, tend to give the excuses they think you want to hear."

Alongside a European Unionfunded study into the way data is collected on women's drinking habits, Dr Plant is now taking forward the research published last month in her book, Women and Alcohol, into the underlying causes of alcohol problems in women.

"For a long time, research quite wrongly assumed that if a problem was present for men, it was present for women in the same way," she said. "Research was done in out-patient clinics, where the vast majority of patients were men. So many areas need to be looked at."

Dr Plant is looking for funding to study socioeconomic and psychological backgrounds of women with alcohol problems, hoping to initiate early prevention schemes. But the existing support systems also have to be reviewed, she said.

Preliminary findings suggest that women with drinking problems get less early and informal support from their peers than men, because of the stigma attached to the problem. Alcoholic women with families also need more home-based treatment, as they have less freedom to visit a clinic. Dr Plant is studying home-based detoxification projects in Edinburgh. "Women have an obvious benefit here. Such schemes are long overdue," she said.

Child-care issues in general have to be addressed, as mothers may often feel that asking for help will lead to their children being taken into care.

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