Women’s alcohol intake is big concern, so why celebrate it?

Modern women drink a hell of a lot more than their mothers or grandmothers ever did, in fact us Irish colleens are now close to the top of the table worldwide for heavy drinking, writes Ailin Quinlan in her weekly column
Women’s alcohol intake is big concern, so why celebrate it?

TOO MUCH? Irish women are now close to the top of the table worldwide for heavy drinking. Picture posed by model.

I WAS talking to some college students the other day when, for some reason, the conversation took a sudden detour into the topic of girls and alcohol consumption.

One of the students, an athlete in her early twenties, commented crossly that the level of drinking amongst female students at third-level was mind-boggling.

If the sun was shining, she observed, certain classmates would suggest having a drink because it was a nice day.

If it was wet, she added, the same ones would invite her to get in out of the rain and have a drink.

She was mystified, she said, by the presumption that she had nothing better to do with her time than get tipsy because of the weather. But, she said, that was the mind-set. And if you didn’t play ball, you were no fun at all. You were, actually, considered to be a bit of a ‘gowl’.

Now let’s be fair here. While this student was talking about her peer group it’s hard to deny that moderately heavy drinking is now the norm for too many of us.

In fact, according to Alcohol Ireland figures, since the early 1960s, our total consumption of alcohol has increased nearly threefold. As a nation we somehow went from 4.9 litres per capita in 1960 to more than 14 in 2001, and it’s probably even higher now.

On top of that, modern women drink a hell of a lot more than their mothers or grandmothers ever did. The only thing my grandmother drank was the occasional glass of sherry, and that was a big thing for her. The woman rarely, if ever, set foot in a pub. Maybe a hotel lounge, at a push.

Yet according to a recent article in The Lancet, us Irish colleens are now close to the top of the table worldwide for heavy drinking. On average, we drank 3.1 standard drinks per day in 2016, which is 35% higher than in 1995.

A hospital consultant remarked to me a few years ago that, although the public was generally unaware of the extent of the problem, the number of women in their late twenties in hospital with liver failure due to excess alcohol consumption had to be seen to be believed.

And anyone who has seen the distressing state of some quite young Irish girls and women after a graduation dance or just a night out on the town could only feel uncomfortable. Many will drink til they’re blasted. Many will drink til they can’t see straight and their legs won’t carry them.

Those experts who fight the good fight against the growing normalisation around alcohol consumption in this country will tell you that our society’s ever-heavier tippling is down to a number of reasons.

First, we’re drinking more alcohol because alcohol is basically more available and cheaper than it was a few decades ago. You can buy it in corner shops, petrol stations and supermarkets along with the newspaper and a litre of milk.

In fact, it’s right there on the shelf alongside the cans of beans and the vegetables and baby products. (And, in fact, you can even buy alcoholic products for your pets in some supermarkets now. Just look around you.)

Meanwhile, now that the big supermarkets are selling it in large quantities, alcohol is now extremely affordable. You can buy spirits, beer, wine or cider very easily and so cheaply that the majority of alcohol consumed nowadays is drunk at home.

Thirty years ago, you had to go to the pub or the off-licence to have a drink, and many women didn’t go to the pub all of that much.

So that’s one part of it.

Other reasons being given for our increased consumption are around what one expert explained to me was a ‘fabricated culture of sophistication’ around drinking. He said women are now being targeted as a specific market, by the highly sophisticated drinks industry marketing machine.

And, of course, it’s an easy door to push open, because the sort of alcohol that many women drink now is a lot nicer than my poor granny’s glass of sherry.

There’s a whole range of attractive alcoholic drinks which are increasingly viewed as ‘girls’ drinks,’ such as pinot grigio, pink gins and prosecco.

Maybe my granny would have tippled a bit more if pinot grigio or prosecco had been on the market back then, because they’re certainly a lot tastier than her sherry. Whether that would have been a good thing, however, is debatable.

At any rate, I find myself reluctant to applaud the establishment of Cork’s first ever ‘Festival of Prosecco’ which takes place later this month.

This will, no doubt, be an elegant and sophisticated affair. Already it’s looking very promising in terms of consumer interest — according to the press release that popped into my inbox during the week, it already boasts a number of sold-out events.

The festival will feature master classes on how Prosecco is made and where it comes from, a Prosecco cocktail-making class, a Prosecco Supper Club and a tasting event. One hotel is even apparently planning to have a ‘Prosecco Station’ for the full month of May at its weekly Sunday buffet.

The Festival of Prosecco is being hailed as something which will boost the city’s tourism industry. I have no doubt that it will, to some extent at least, and that it will, in some ways, be good for Cork.

However, something about the idea of a ‘festival’ devoted to an alcoholic drink makes me uncomfortable. This is a word I associate with the celebration of things like music, dancing, books, religious events and personalities and language. Alcohol consumption is generally a side-effect of such events.

But now Cork is to have a festival specifically devoted to the celebration of an alcoholic drink popular with many women at a time when there is increasing concern about the level of alcohol consumption by Irish women.

Forgive me, if I sound like a bit of a ‘gowl’ myself, but am I missing something here?

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