Few will be surprised to learn that risky alcohol consumption is skyrocketing in Australia. But while it’s mainly the intoxicated antics of young people that fill our emergency departments and newspaper reports each weekend, many tens of thousands of women of all ages and backgrounds are drinking at levels that pose a danger to their long-term health.
The simple fact is that wine is incredibly accessible to all of us. From those who want to spend a fortune on a good drop to those whose preference is a $10 bottle from the local drive-through, wine has become the socially accepted accompaniment to almost every social occasion. No wonder, then, that many of us have slipped into a pattern of alcohol abuse – without even realising it. Think this doesn’t apply to you? Then read on.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
So acceptable is it for women to drink, and so available is our wine, that there has been a massive increase in the rates of problem drinking among women. Female rates of risky drinking are now comparable with men’s. “Culturally it’s acceptable for young women to drink and to become intoxicated,” says Dan Lubman, Professor of Addiction Studies at Monash University, and Director of Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre. According to Lubman, around 8% of women in their 30s, and 10% of women in their 40s, are drinking alcohol in a risky fashion – that is, drinking more than the National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines of no more than 14 standard drinks per week (see box on page 62). And 6% to 7% of 30- to 40-year-olds are drinking to intoxication and injuries at least weekly; 10% to 30% at least monthly.
“We have a permissive society towards intoxication,” says Lubman. “It’s seen as funny. It’s a really dangerous environment because it promotes more broadly the idea that it’s OK to get a bit tipsy.”
Lubman points to baby boomers as the portion of the population most likely to drink every day. Given their numbers (placed at more than four million), that’s shaping up to be a significant problem.
WHY DO WE LOVE WINE?
Basically, it comes down to taste – or so says Associate Professor Tony Spawton at the University of SA, a specialist in wine consumption and purchase behaviour. Since the 1960s, the use of refrigeration in the wine-making process has meant that the industry can produce more palatable wines than the heavy reds and oaked whites that tend to appeal less to women.
Women loved the new, crisp, clean, light varieties of white and, since they have the purchasing power, wine became the drink of choice in the home. Australia’s wine consumption increased fourfold from the 1960s to the 1980s, and wine remains, after beer, the most popular alcoholic beverage in the country.
A recent Nielsen survey found that more women now drink wine than men – we’re increasingly the ones who buy wine, who choose the wine at a restaurant, and who drink wine in the comfort of our homes.
Like a good bottle of red, our taste for wine seems to develop as we mature. While young women are more likely to drink spirits and pre-mixed drinks, women over 30 prefer wine. Men, too, often switch from beer to wine after 40. Our current favourites? Sauvignon blanc, rosé and pinot noir, says Spawton.
WHAT’S IT DOING TO OUR HEALTH?
A little alcohol daily is good for you. Red wine, in particular, contains antioxidants that have been shown to boost heart health, while alcohol itself in moderation is associated with better digestion, fewer gallstones and a lower risk of diabetes.
But it’s a fine balance. When you exceed two standard drinks a day – and you’d be surprised at how little wine that actually is – the risks very quickly outweigh the benefits. Too much alcohol is related not only to liver damage, but to cancer, obesity, osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease. “If you’re middle-aged and presenting with high blood pressure, one of the most common causes is drinking,” says Lubman. People who drink more than 14 drinks a week are much more likely to suffer depression or anxiety, too.
Women are particularly vulnerable to physical harm from alcohol. Our bodies are composed differently to men’s: we have smaller livers, fewer active enzymes to break down alcohol, and lower body water than body fat content compared with men. “Our organs are inherently more vulnerable to damage than men, so we’re going to have greater long-term damage with a relatively lower consumption of alcohol,” says Creina Stockley, Health and Regulatory Information Manager at the Australian Wine Research Institute.