British girls are the west’s biggest teenage drinkers. As we were with tobacco, we’re in deep denial about the dangers of alcohol.
Years ago, I started having two glasses of wine in the evening. Gradually, as my responsibilities grew larger, it morphed into three. After a hard day, wine helped to unhitch my shoulders from my ears, ease the transition from one role to another, numb my burgeoning anxiety and depression. And it helped me fall asleep.
Over many years, three glasses turned into four. Falling asleep became passing out. And when that happened, I blew the whistle on myself: I quit drinking. I was a high-functioning alcoholic who never crashed a car, never missed work. Still, after years of daily drinking, I was in serious trouble.
For a long, long time, alcohol was my partner, providing welcome support. Many women will identify with this to some degree: in a recent survey carried out by Netmums in Britain, 81% of those who drank past the government’s safe-drinking guidelines said they did so ”to wind down from a stressful day”, and 86% said they felt they should drink less.
This makes some kind of sense. But what of the news that close to 300 children aged 11 or under were admitted to accident and emergency units across the UK last year, all having had too much to drink? Or the fact that more than 6,500 under-18s were taken to hospital with alcohol-related illnesses? Among the teens, more girls than boys were admitted, a reversal of past trends.
Sadly, this makes sense too. There are well-recognised triggers for drinking during childhood. Top among these are bullying, sexual harassment and sexual abuse. Another key trigger? Being exposed to heavy-drinking parents. In Britain there are more than a million alcohol-related hospital admissions each year. We live in an alcogenic culture, awash with cheap liquor, where drunkenness has become normalised. It should come as no surprise that children are mimicking their parents.
What does confound the academics is this: why are women and girls closing the gender gap on risky drinking? The world’s leading epidemiologists are scratching their heads; women show no sign of slowing down. According to one index, the higher the level of “emancipation” – now there’s an old-fashioned word – the more likely the woman is to drink. In fact, the one protective factor in a woman’s life is a low-status occupation. Those working in male-dominated environments have an increased risk of alcohol use disorders.
Is alcohol the professional woman’s steroid, enabling her to do the heavy lifting involved in a complex, demanding world? Is it the escape valve women need, in the midst of a major social revolution that is still unfolding? For many such women the answer is a resounding yes. Racing in from a long day at the office, with an evening of cooking and homework ahead, the first instinct is to pop a cork, smoothing the shift from day to night. Chopping, dicing, sipping – it’s a modern ritual. Nobody questions it.
Women born after the second world war are more likely to binge-drink and develop alcohol-use disorders than their older counterparts. With these steep increases will come a larger burden of disease. Yet few women accept the consequences. Jürgen Rehm, director of social and epidemiological research at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says up to 15% of all breast cancer cases are related to alcohol consumption.
In Britain, a rising number of women in their twenties are presenting with end-stage liver disease, traditionally seen as the curse of old men. This mirrors what we saw with tobacco, when women caught up with men in relation to lung cancer. Surely, this is not what the great American feminist Gloria Steinem had in mind.
In many other ways too, alcohol is the new tobacco. It is a multibillion-dollar international industry dealing with market-friendly governments, enjoying virtually unrestricted access to advertising despite the growing evidence that the substance they sell has significant health risks.
It’s time we had an adult conversation about the risks associated with our favourite drug, but this seems unlikely. When it comes to alcohol, our values are fuzzy. We tend to “other” the problem – it’s their issue, not mine. Occasionally we read about a tragic case: last year’s death of Zara Malone, the 22-year-old Exeter student who died covered in her own vomit, alone in her flat, two empty vodka bottles in her room; or the death this year of Nicole Falkingham, the estranged wife of a millionaire property developer in Liverpool, who died of alcohol poisoning and hypothermia in the back of a friend’s car after a long stint in a wine bar. But for the most part, we distance ourselves from such stories. These are the rare cases. They have nothing to do with our lives, with us.
This is not true. In recent years Britain has distinguished itself as the Lindsay Lohan of the international set, with deaths from liver disease rising 20% in a decade. In a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, British girls were cited as the biggest teenage drinkers in the western world.
Prime minister David Cameron, declaring binge-drinking a national “scandal”, pushed for minimum alcohol pricing – and then backed away. What a mistake: alcohol is now 44% more affordable in real terms than it was in 1980, and easily accessible. According to a new study in the American Journal of Public Health, a 10% rise in the price of alcohol is associated with a 9% drop in hospital admissions for acute alcohol-related issues, and a similar drop over two to three years in admissions for chronic alcohol-related problems.
Here’s a question. Let’s say there’s a pond where a growing number of frogs are developing odd-looking growths. Do you send in surgeons to remove the growths, or do you say to yourself maybe there’s something in the water?
It’s high time we understood that there’s something in the water. We’re swimming in an ocean of cheap alcohol. Our children are in trouble. Women are too. We’re medicating what ails us with our culture’s cheapest drug. And as a culture, we’re in deep denial.
Ann Dowsett Johnston