Heaviest drinkers are rich women and poor men, report finds

13 May 2015
The Sydney Morning Herald
[Sydney, Australia]
Harriet Alexander, Health

First OECD report into harmful alcohol use

‘[It] is a really interesting finding that will need us to rethink how we target messages.’ Public Health Association chief Michael Moore

The heaviest drinkers in developed countries are poorer, less educated men and wealthier, better educated women, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In a finding that could see women become the targets of public health messages, the first OECD report into harmful alcohol use found that dangerous drinking was polarised at opposite ends of the social spectrum.

Women who were higher educated, with a higher socioeconomic status were more likely to be hazardous drinkers in most of the 15 countries studied, while the reverse was true for men.

In Australia the picture was more complicated for men, who were more likely to drink at hazardous levels if they were less well educated or if they had a higher socio-economic status.

The report, Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use: Economics and Public Health Policy, said the increase in risky drinking among women may be due to them having better paid jobs with higher responsibilities and greater stress. It might be that drinking has become socially acceptable among highly educated women.

‘‘More years spent in education, improved labour market prospects, increased opportunities for socialisation, 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,’’ the report said.

Public Health Association chief executive Michael Moore said the link between social status and drinking was well known – but it was a surprise to learn wealthy women were among the biggest drinkers.

‘‘The less educated, less well off men were clearly on our radar,’’ he said. ‘‘To find that it also applies to higher educated, higher socioeconomic status women is a really interesting finding that will need us to re-think how we target messages.’’

Adults drank on average the equivalent of nine litres of pure alcohol each year, and Australian adults drank the equivalent of 10 litres.

Children were drinking at risky levels at an earlier age and girls were catching up to boys.

In 2001, less than 30 per cent of 15-year-olds had ever been drunk, increasing to 40 per cent in 2010.

The proportion of children who had never drunk alcohol by the age of 15 over the same period shrank from 44 per cent to 30 per cent among boys and 50 per cent to 31 per cent among girls.

Curtin University’s Public Health Advocacy Institute director Mike Daube said the report demonstrated that price policy, regulating access, curbing alcohol promotion and good education programs all worked to reduce alcohol problems.

‘‘This will be an important report if governments listen – another tragedy if they ignore the evidence yet again,’’ he said.