LONDON -- Well, ladies, as you reach for that holiday drink of choice -- mulled wine, Christmas punch, or spiced eggnog, perhaps? -- you might want to think twice. A new study in Europe shows that highly educated, professional women drink more often and more heavily than almost any other female group.
The study, released on Friday by the University of Lancaster, looked at female alcohol consumption in two European countries known for their excessive drinking -- the U.K. and Denmark. Researchers found that while there has been an apparent decline
in young women's binge drinking in both countries since 2000, more hidden forms of drinking have increased, including more frequent drinking, home drinking and wine drinking into middle age. They also found that the higher the household income
, the higher the alcohol consumption among women.
The results corroborate earlier studies showing a rise in binge drinking by British women, particularly those over 65, as well as national statistical data showing that it is women in managerial and professional occupations who report drinking both more frequently and more heavily.
So why is this happening? In Ireland, which exhibits similar trends, speculation is that women are drinking more because of the so-called "wine culture" ushered in by boom times, coupled with the ban on smoking in public places and tougher drunk driving laws, all of which drove people to do more of their drinking in private. And it's women who do more of that drinking because advertising has been aimed at them.
The authors of the study believe that the lower price of alcohol over time has likely had an impact on changing consumption patterns. But they very clearly throw the lion's share of the blame at Britain's explicit policy of encouraging "civilized" European-style drinking at home. By demonizing the drinking habits of the young and the working class, they argue, the government has not only overlooked -- but quite possibly validated -- alcoholism within the middle-aged and the middle class.
Ironically, this is exactly the same message that Britain's outgoing minister of public health had this week for Great Britain, where it is legal to start giving your child alcohol at home from the age of -- (gulp) -- 5. Calling this practice of introducing young children to alcohol at home a "middle-class obsession
," he argued that it only paves the way for drinking problems later on in life. But most politicians -- including Britain's likely future Prime Minister David Cameron
-- dismiss this advice.
There's no question that attitudes towards alcohol are much more lax over here than they are in the States, where everyone, it seems, is a recovering alcoholic who wants to pontificate about his 12-step program. I was absolutely shocked when a group of parents at my daughter's school in London launched a full-scale protest when they discovered -- wait for it -- that there wouldn't
be alcohol served at the school fair
. "What's next?" I joked at the time. "Smoking pot at PTA meetings?" But they were dead serious. Not allowing alcohol at a school function was tantamount culturally to taking away their passports.
To be fair, middle-aged drinking isn't just a British problem. A study last summer
in the U.S. also revealed that drinking large amounts of alcohol is now more prevalent among middle-aged adults than previously thought. The study didn't break that age group down by gender, class or income.
But to the extent that I've read about middle-class alcoholism in the U.S., it's always been discussed within the context of stay-at-home moms
who turn to alcohol as a way to take the edge off of parenting and then discover one day that they've grown dependent upon it. Whereas in Europe, the problem appears to be with high-earning, professional women.
So why do
these professional women hit the sauce? Work-related stress? Trying to keep up
in a man's world? Too many balls to juggle at once?
I don't know, but I'd love to find out. Maybe some of you smart, hard-working uppity ladies have some thoughts on this?