Women drinking

Moral panic over women's drinking has become increasingly visible in the media – for example, the Dominion Post's front page article this year on the Toast Martinborough festival and its "grossly intoxicated young women, some incontinent and smeared in their own blood"! But has women's drinking behaviour really changed?

Dr Antonia Lyons*, Associate Professor of Psychology at Massey University, says "yes". "It's definitely true that women are drinking more than previously, especially in public; and especially younger women without children. It's linked to their changing social position – they'll say, ‘we're working, we're financially independent, we don't have kids yet – why shouldn't we have fun’. It comes from a real ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude. But all this attention on women obscures the fact that they're still not drinking as much as men – and that our binge-drinking culture in general is problematic."

Gender bender

The Ministry of Health's 2007/8 Alcohol and Drug Use Survey gives some insight into the relationship between gender and drinking behaviour. According to the survey, men do drink more than women and are also more likely to engage in risky behaviour while drinking, such as driving or being involved in an assault. But women from higher socio-economic areas are the group most likely to drink at levels that are the same or similar to men's.

Another important factor is age. Men were significantly more likely to show hazardous drinking behaviour in every age group – except for the youngest age group of 16-17-year-olds. At this age, women were more likely than men to indulge in hazardous drinking, and they were also more likely to have started drinking at a younger age.

Equality and drinking

Whether these gender patterns continue through each individual’s lifecycle remains to be seen – but in New Zealand's strong drinking culture, this perceived link between hard drinking and equality shouldn't be a surprise. But many health organisations see it as a huge problem. "There are clear links between high alcohol consumption and cancer – and particularly for women, breast cancer – which aren’t widely known," says Dr Jan Pearson, Cancer Society of New Zealand National Health Promotion Manager.

She points out "it takes a while to see the results of these behaviours in cancer statistics – it took 30 years with tobacco and lung cancer. So it's hard to get that message across that these things will have an impact on your health in the long run."

Time bomb

There is convincing evidence that alcohol is associated with cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus and breast, and it probably also increases the risk of colorectal cancer and liver cancer for women. However, the statistics show that the only type of cancer that has shown a significant increase for women over the past 50 years is that of the trachea, bronchus and lung.

But as Dr Lyons points out, the females that have shown the most change in drinking behaviour were born in the 1990s: "so it will be years before this is reflected in health statistics".


* Dr Antonia Lyons is the sister of Amanda Lyons, the author of this article.

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