by Ana Sandoiu
Traditionally, alcohol consumption and alcohol abuse have been more commonly associated with men than women. But as more women drink alcohol, a new analysis finds they are catching up with men at an unprecedented rate. This also means women are affected by the same harmful effects of alcohol as men, and the new study highlights the need for women-specific information and educational campaigns in order to reduce the negative effects of alcohol consumption.
Historically, men have used alcohol anywhere between 2-12 times more than women, the analysis reports.
However, the new research revealed a steady decrease in the sex ratio of alcohol consumption, alcohol abuse, and related harms.
In the early 1900s, males were twice as likely to consume alcohol than females and almost four times more likely to develop an alcohol-related condition.
By contrast, in the late 1900s, the gender gap has nearly disappeared, with males only 1.1 times likelier to consume alcohol than females and just 1.2 times more likely to experience alcohol-related problems.
The closing gap is most obvious in the youngest adults, namely those born as recently as 1990 and aged between 15-25 years.
The analysis — published in the journal BMJ Open — examined studies that tracked alcohol patterns in participants born as early as 1891, ranging all the way to 2001. The research collected data between 1948-2014 and included more than 4 million people. Some of the studies considered spanned over 30 years or more.
Health risks of alcohol use
Alcohol is one of the leading risk factors for global disease, together with smoking, pollution, and high blood pressure.
In 2010, alcohol accounted for 5 percent of deaths worldwide and was the leading risk factor in Eastern Europe, Andean Latin America, and southern sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2012, alcohol accounted for 3.3 million deaths, which is 5.9 percent of the global number of deaths.
In the United States, alcohol is currently listed as the fourth preventable cause of death by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Traditional gender expectations and alcohol consumption
Some studies have pointed to the connection between gender expectations and alcohol consumption patterns. Social norms associate drinking with displays of masculinity, while traditionally defined femininity associates women with abstinence.
Because of sex-based social roles, we also tend to judge women more harshly for using alcohol or having an alcohol addiction.
Gender roles perceived in this traditional way might cause women’s drinking problems to be ignored or mishandled. In fact, a study reported that women often feel that the social stigma stands in the way of seeking and receiving treatment, and women were more likely to report stigmatization than men.
Women must be warned of alcohol risks
The analysis conducted by Slade and team questions traditional assumptions and urges relevant institutions to put women at the centre of new prevention and intervention programs:
“Alcohol use and alcohol use disorders have historically been viewed as a male phenomenon. The present study calls this assumption into question and suggests that young women, in particular, should be the target of concerted efforts to reduce the impact of substance use and related harms.”
The study does not provide any explanations for why the gender gap is closing, but speculations include changes in traditionally female gender roles; the researchers point to a study that showed alcohol consumption rates were most similar between men and women in countries where male and female roles were most equal.
The men and women in the analysis were very young and early in their alcohol use, the authors warn. As a result, more studies will have to be carried out as the young males and females age into their 30s and 40s.