Friday, December 03, 2004

Youthful excess

As the Christmas party season gets into swing, a new advertising campaign in cinemas warns women of the dangers of binge drinking. 'Younger women in particular are increasingly adopting the more risky drinking styles of their male peers in that they are more likely to engage in heavy episodic drinking', says the Portman Group, the UK alcohol industry body that encourages 'responsible' drinking which has produced the adverts.

According to Portman, the proportion of young women aged 16 to 24 drinking more than 35 units of alcohol per week more than tripled between 1988 and 1998, rising from three per cent to 10 per cent. Their briefing to accompany the ads warns that, 'Heavy drinking, particularly over a period of years, can increase the risk of suffering from all of the following: liver damage, pancreatitis, cancers of the mouth and throat, gastritis, stomach ulcers, brain damage, breast cancer, infertility, haemorrhagic stroke and coronary heart disease.'

Nobody who has spent any time drinking regularly will be under any illusions about drinking being good for you. But this campaign, like recent UK government health campaigns, blurs ordinary social drinking with dangerously excessive consumption.

For example, the recommended daily intake for a woman is three units of alcohol per day - three small glasses of wine, or just over a pint of any of the most popular lagers. 'Binge' drinking is defined as twice this amount. It will come as a surprise to many people to find that, officially at least, binge drinking includes not just a weekend bender but an ordinary after-work drink or two with your workmates and friends.

All these figures show is that young women with greater incomes and independence in recent years have drunk a bit more. In fact, the Portman Group briefing shows that this is largely a feature of younger women. For women as a whole, they note that, 'the number of women exceeding 35 units per week remained virtually unchanged, at two per cent for the period 1988 to 1998 rising to three per cent in 2002'. In other words, women, like men, enjoy partying when they're young, then grow out of it as they get older.

There is a strongly moralistic tone to discussions of drinking, particularly when directed at young women. Unable to touch people through Puritanism these days, anti-alcohol sentiment is represented as a health concern - or even beauty tips (apparently, the demon drink plays havoc with your skin). What is strikingly absent from this discussion is the fact that drinking is, usually, no more than a great way to have fun, even when you drink too much. As they say, 'A hangover can last a day; a good drinking story can last a lifetime'.