Binge Drinking Epidemic Among British Women

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It's Friday night and you're a British female between the ages of 14 and 75 "“ what are you going to do? As likely as not, you're going out to get pissed.

According to recent research, women in Britain are big drinkers. As in, wasted before they even get to the bar, dancing on (and falling off) tables, throwing up on Tube tracks, and urinating in doorways. Women in England and Ireland drink more than their European sisters, and more than many in the rest of the world. Although men still consume more units of alcohol than women, the ladies are catching up fast as rates of drinking among women is rising more rapidly than rates of drinking among men. The rates of women dying from alcohol-related diseases has more than doubled since 1991 and liver specialists say that where middle-aged men used to make up the majority of their caseload, women as young as 26 are increasing in number.

Drinking is something of a national sport in the UK, a kind of time-honored tradition that could only spring from the country that invented the G&T. Alcohol has long been part of the fabric of British life "“ witness any book by Evelyn Waugh or PG Wodehouse.

But while characters in books and movies can getaway with multiple martinis before dinner with little ill effect (or, in Bertie Wooster's case, with a brilliant butler to set him to rights), real people can't. And now, Britain is reaping the fruit of a long time love affair with the drink.

In 2007, the Daily Mail ran a special report on the growing problem of binge drinking. Among the more inflammatory headlines included a report about 8-year-old school children showing up to school hungover. More recent surveys have found that British teenagers routinely out-drink most of their European components, with 54 percent of them claiming to binge drink (that's five or more alcoholic beverages in one go).

But what's got folks here concerned isn't just that British teenagers rank fifth among binge drinking teenagers out of 35 European countries, but that binge-drinking teenage girls are inflating their numbers. Teenage girls, the survey suggests, are binge drinking more than teenage boys. Other statistics show that more than 5,000 teenage girls ended up in the hospital after a night of boozing last year alone. That's a relatively big number for a small island.

But it's not all teenage girls out for a night of hilarity and tears "“ middle-aged professional women are more likely to over-drink than any other age and socio-economic group of women, and to do it at home, as well.

Of course, there's also a good dose of hysteria mixed in with these statistics, with newspapers "“ the same ones that follow Lady GaGa's every costume change "“ shrieking headlines about the scourge of lady drinking. Which is why the BBC recently worked up a documentary about lady drinking, featuring the adorable Cherry Healey working her way through what she called the seven ages of drinking, drinking with girls age 14 to grandmothers, in an attempt to get to the bottom of the lady booze phenomenon. (Watch here until Monday.)

It's sad watching "“ but utterly fascinating. The program is littered with horrifying informational tidbits definitely meant to shock and appall: 60 percent of 18-to-24-year-old girls drink just to get wasted; binge drinking among teenage girls is on the rise, whilst its on the decline among teenage boys; alcohol costs the National Health Service £2.7 billion a year in emergency room calls and through things like the booze bus, a mobile command center that deals with a lot of London's drunks. We find this last bit out when Healey spends an evening out with the unit, watching teenage girls wail about wanting their mummy after vomiting violently into a plastic basin.

But these factoids take a backseat to the depressing human drama the program is meant to capture. Healy spends one evening drinking with some underage teenagers, in the bedroom of one girl while her mother is downstairs. "I don't like the taste of it, but I like the effect," says Rio, a 14-year-old binge drinker, taking a pull, through a straw, of course, off a bottle of Bacardi.

"We have no control," her mother says later, adding, "we feel that we're helpless."

Asked what life would be like without booze, Rio replies, "So boring it would be unbelievable."

The show, while not the most objective of journalistic exercises, hits on some of the deepest reasons why women drink. And they're pretty simple, throughout the ages Healey drinks with: Alcohol for women is liquid courage, it's a cure for boredom, a social lubricant, a way to break down that famed "British reserve," a quick shot of relaxation, and a truth serum. But primarily, and perhaps most disturbingly, it's confidence.

April 24, 2009 - 7:20am
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