On the one hand, the news is good — per-capital alcohol consumption in the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) has declined overall. On the other hand, many countries have seen a significant increase in some risky drinking behaviours (such as binge drinking) — particularly among young people and women.
“There is a fairly strong trend for women’s drinking behaviours to converge to those of men,” said its report Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use: Economics and Public Health Policy, which looked at the years 2011 to 2014.
The rates of “hazardous” drinking (a weekly amount of pure alcohol of 140 grams or more for women and 210 grams or more for men) and heavy episodic drinking (five to eight drinks in one session, depending on the country) in young people, especially women, have increased in many OECD countries.
And initiation into alcohol drinking and drunkenness is happening at increasingly early ages, as girls have virtually caught up with boys in the past 10 years in terms of the average age at which they start drinking in 20 OECD countries.
So, why are women drinking more alcohol these days?
“More years spent in education, improved labour market prospects, increased opportunities for socialization, delayed pregnancies and family ties, are all part of women’s changing lifestyles, in which alcohol drinking, sometimes including heavy drinking, has easily found a place,” said the report.
Women who are more educated and have a higher socioeconomic status are also more likely to indulge in risky drinking in many countries (as are men with less education and a lower socioeconomic status), found the OECD.
“Women with higher education who end up taking better-paid jobs involving higher degrees of responsibility may drink more heavily because they are exposed to more stress and have more occasions of socializing and going out with colleagues. Besides, these occasions being typically in masculine work environments, women are confronted with a situation where the limits on drinking are higher than they would be exposed to otherwise.”
Much of the bad behaviour starts during post-secondary education, where non-drinkers are often looked on with suspicion, almost like outcasts, said Anne Rochon Ford, project lead at the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health at the York Institute for Health Research in Toronto.
“It’s become so normalized in our culture, it’s perfectly understandable that women with a pretty low level of understanding about the physiological problems of drinking are going to be putting themselves at risk.”
And as women in university settings move more into conventionally male fields and compete with men in ways they historically didn’t, the downside is women are also thinking they can drink like men and are being encouraged to drink like men, she said.
“There’s this kind of ‘pony up to the bar and match him with his drinking ability.’”
Alcohol is the ultimate social lubricant in a high-pressure environment where there’s a desire to fit in, said Gabrielle Glaser, author of Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink — and How They Can Regain Control. And a lot more women are in industries that are male-dominated, particularly technology and banking.
“Those are two very, very (heavy) drinking industries. So you drink to seal a deal, you keep drinking, you don’t want to be the (lightweight)…. you keep drinking with the guys even though you know you shouldn’t… You almost have to do it.”
While many women start to be more responsible about drinking when they get pregnant, many are having babies at later ages in order to move to a certain point in their careers, said Rochon Ford.
“The problem drinking can kind of carry on for longer and also start to create an environment where they think it’s OK to drink that much. They’ve learned how to manage it.”
There’s also more stress and anxiety these days. Previous generations did not generally have to balance all the things many women do today, said Glaser.
“They managed their homes, of course, some women did work… they lived in tight-knit communities where their grandmothers and aunts and sisters were there to help,” she said. “(Today), certainly the workplace stress combined with having children later… and you combine that with taking care of elderly parents at the same time that you’re raising teenagers, that is no fun.”
The stress release of alcohol is an enormous part of it, said Glaser.
“It makes you feel better, you release endorphins, it feels good, you develop a pattern of expecting that endorphin release so you start drinking more. And it can quickly become a habit that needs watching.”
Even though great progress has been made in terms of equality, the reality is there’s still an unbalance in households and women are still primarily responsible for organizing and planning everything related to childcare, said Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.
“When women bear all the responsibilities, they can feel overwhelmed, experience stress, and this puts them at greater risk for abusive drinking.”
So, why should employers be concerned?
“Heavy drinking is associated with a lesser probability of being in employment, more absence from work, lower productivity and wages, and a greater likelihood of causing accidents and injuries in the workplace,” said the OECD.
Alcohol abuse can have an impact in several ways.
“When people start having to take more time to recover from their drinking, that’s one thing that is a problem because you have lost productivity and lost time in the workplace,” said Glaser. “But I think one of the biggest things is… the things that can happen when alcohol leads you to do stupid things. And all sorts of stupid things can happen when you drink too much — you can have sex with a colleague you shouldn’t be with, it clouds your judgment, you can send emails that are inappropriate, you can tweet something that’s inappropriate.”
One way employers can raise awareness of the risks is providing information, such as knowing what your blood alcohol content is after two or three drinks, she said.
“Nobody wants to be told what to do…. (it’s about) just educating people, ‘Here’s what’s prudent,’ not ‘Don’t do it,’ not ‘Don’t enjoy yourself’ but ‘Here’s a way to keep yourself without regrets.’”
Often social time at school or work is centred around alcohol, and that’s all people know, said Rochon Ford. Introducing other activities such as beach volleyball could help break that trend.
“It takes somebody setting an example and I think employers can play a role there for sure. Create events, environments, settings where non-alcohol-related activities are the norm and are fun.”
On the one hand, people have more fun when alcohol is involved, said Glaser.
“So you don’t want to kind of be patronizing and paternalistic in that regard, but certainly mixing it up a little bit would be beneficial.”
Employers should definitely provide low-risk drinking guidelines, whether through newsletters or posters, said Paradis, and encourage employees to follow the guidelines at work-related events.
“If you come to work with multiple symptoms of being hungover — fatigue, depression, distress, tremendous thirst, muscle pain, headaches and so on — you’re not a good employee. So it’s great for companies to organize those golf tournaments and those dinners and those Christmas parties but… when an employer says, ‘I cannot do anything about my employees drinking,’ well, I think they could.”
Women are really surprised when they learn of potential downsides to alcohol, according to Gabrielle Glaser, author of Her Best-Kept Secret.
“We have grown up in a culture, telling our daughters and hearing ‘You can do anything a man can do, you can run a triathlon, you can do this, you can do that, you’re every bit as capable,’ but physiologically we are not when it comes to drinking. Women simply are not equal. We have more fat, which absorbs alcohol; less water, which dilutes it; and we make less of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenate which helps process the alcohol. So when you make less of it, you get drunk faster, you suffer the toxic effects of alcohol much faster.”
There are multiple illnesses or risks women are more likely to suffer, such as heart disorders, stroke, alcoholic hepatitis, breast cancer and cirrhosis of the liver, said Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. And along with the risks around pregnancy, there are vulnerabilities when it comes to medication.
“Over-the-counter pain killers can slow the elimination of alcohol or mask its effects, and, conversely, alcohol can make certain medications less effective…. (and) women are much more frequently prescribed such drugs than men so, therefore, they have an increased risk.”