25 March 2019
Dying for wine o’clock: binge drinking at home is becoming a serious health problem for women
The Sunday Times 24th March 2019
Dying for wine o'clock: binge drinking at home is becoming a serious health problem for women...
One glass of wine in the evening is ‘turning into two and very quickly becoming a bottle’, according to Austin Prior, an addiction counsellor at Dublin’s Rutland Centre
Roisin Sheridan attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the 1980s when she was recovering from addiction. “Back then it was mostly men,” she recalls. “I would say there seems to be a larger number of women alcoholics now than there used to be.” Health professionals reckon Sheridan’s hunch is correct. Women are catching up with men when it comes to problem drinking and health problems caused by alcohol — and a big part of the problem is the “wine o’clock” habit: regular home drinking to relieve stress, as a reward for getting through the day, or as a crutch to make life feel better for a while. Frank Murray, a consultant gastroenterologist at Beaumont Hospital, recalls that, when he was training 30 years ago, “the majority of patients who died of liver failure were men drinking in pubs — pints and whiskeys”. In recent years, however, Murray has been “struck by the influx of young women dying from alcohol-related liver disease”. Austin Prior, an addiction counsellor at the Rutland Centre in Dublin, has seen “a steady increase in the number of women presenting with dependency” over the past decade. “A lot of women I come across, the drinking is done at home; that insidious thing of one glass of wine in the evening turning into two and very quickly becoming a bottle”. The amount that Irish women drink is significantly higher than it was 30 years ago, according to data published in medical journal The Lancet last year as part of a global study. Irish women are near the top of the table worldwide for heavy drinking, ranking seventh. On average, Irish women drank 3.1 standard drinks per day in 2016, 13% lower than the Celtic tiger peak in 2005, but 35% higher than in 1995. Binge drinking by young people is frequently cited as a public health issue that Ireland needs to tackle. However, the Lancet data tells a different story. Those in their fifties are the heaviest drinking cohort, with women in that age group consuming almost five standard drinks each day. So what is driving the increase in drinking and drink-related problems among women? A rise in household incomes in Ireland since the early 1990s has coincided with greater availability and affordability in off-licence sales. Supermarkets, convenience stores and even petrol stations are all selling wine and other alcohol products. That means women, who tend to drink at home, have more opportunity and temptation to do so. “Alcohol is a lot cheaper,” said Sheridan. “It has become more normal to have a bottle of wine in the evening. When I was 20 or 25 there was no Lidl or cans, or cheap bottles of wine.
Prior agreed: “Like most addiction, availability is a big part of it. Over the past 10 years you have the growth of off-sales, the popularity of wine, and the whole cultural acceptance of wine.” The alcohol industry also seems to have identified women as a hitherto underexploited market and has changed the way it markets products accordingly. Unisex branding that appeals to women without alienating men is a central strategy at Diageo, which makes Guinness and Harp beers and Gordon’s and Tanqueray gins. Christine McCauley, a senior executive at the company, told an industry conference in 2015: “Our current focus is to build as many of our brands as possible into unisex cultural icons.” In the late 1990s, Guinness tried to grab a slice of the youth market with Breó, a new beer. The television ad for the now defunct brand featured the actor James Nesbitt. Twenty years later, Guinness’s pitch for young drinkers is Rockshore lager, launched last year. Comparing the advertisements, it is clear how the focus has shifted: the TV ads for Rockshore centre on a mixed group of young men and women. A billboard campaign for another recent Guinness launch, Hop House 13, depicts a young woman enjoying a pint — and not a glass, as her mother might have done a generation before. Santa Rita was Ireland’s bestselling wine in both on-trade and off-trade in 2017, having increased its sales year on year. The Chilean winemaker spent €1m on marketing in Ireland that year. It sponsored three female-led dramas on RTE: Homeland, Acceptable Risk and the Amy Huberman vehicle Striking Out, which was watched by half-a-million people. Santa Rita also engaged broadcaster Angela Scanlon to appear in videos it circulated on Facebook. Export director Terry Pennington told trade publication The Drinks Business last year that the marketing drive had reaped returns. “The net effect is that we are actively driving shoppers to our retail partner stores to purchase Santa Rita 120,” he said. “The investment is significant but reflects our desire to not only lead the wine market, but also to mutually grow it.” Eunan McKinney, head of advocacy at Alcohol Action Ireland, notes that Revenue receipts show consumption of spirits rose by 5.6% last year. “That is directly related to the increased marketing and promotion of gin and whiskey,” he said. “Gin is now heavily marketed towards women; you even have pink gin now as a product.” Sales of gin rose by 47% in Ireland in 2017. UK sales figures indicate that Gordon’s has enjoyed a huge boost from a pink gin it launched two years ago. Women’s bodies cannot process alcohol as efficiently as men’s, however, and they are much more vulnerable to liver damage, while alcohol causes one in eight breast cancers. “It is really important to state that women cannot drink the same level of alcohol as men,” said McKinney. “This is why low-risk guidelines state that a weekly limit for women of 11 standard drinks while for men it is 17.” Prior warns that women who go for treatment are the tip of the iceberg in terms of Ireland’s alcohol problem. “There is also a whole cohort of people who are abusing alcohol but who don’t see themselves as having a problem because they’re able to function,” he said. “But there is a cost to them: there is an emotional and a physical cost, and that’s growing, no doubt about it.” Sheridan encourages women whose drinking is a problem to address it, “no matter how well you’re holding it together”. “So many women are at home with a bottle of wine in the cupboard or under the sink, and when you are caught in that, you need a family or friend’s intervention,” she said. “I have noticed how little the stigma has changed. Let’s celebrate recovery from addiction.
March 24th 2019, 12.01am The Sunday Times