Women and the hidden risks of alcohol

A woman drinking wine and cooking
A woman drinking wine and cooking

Unwinding with a glass of wine might be a normal part of daily life for many professional women - but are we in denial about the extent of our drinking habits? Journalist and author Ann Dowsett Johnston certainly thinks so

When Ann Dowsett Johnston makes one of her public speeches, there’s a particular line that always resonates with the audience.

“The line that really gets women nodding is the notion of rushing in after a busy day at work, tossing off your coat, unpacking groceries, chopping vegetables and pouring yourself a glass of wine as you prepare the family meal, possibly knowing you’re also heading for another round of homework and emails... Women nod, because they know that’s a habit.

“And that habit can so easily turn into a glass at dinner, and then another glass after dinner,” adds Ann. “And then if you get into trouble, as I did, with major depression and menopause, it can turn into four - and when it’s four, you’re so over the drinking guidelines, you’re in trouble.”

Chances are, many women reading this will be nodding in agreement too. Who hasn’t poured themselves a nice glass of crisp white wine or soothing red to help unwind after a stressful day? Or knocked back the first couple of drinks at a party - or even a work event - to ease those jitters, or unlock your socially confident side?

But that doesn’t mean you have a problem, right? Possibly not - and Ann is no prohibitionist - but, it could develop into a problem, and that doesn’t mean you’d end up swigging cheap cider on a park bench every day. In fact, chances are, you’d look more or less exactly the same; a professional, high functioning, ‘normal’ woman.

This is the point Ann wants to make. It’s a topic she’s written about extensively through her career as a journalist in Canada - where, now 61, she lives in Toronto - and speaks globally at conferences, advising on alcohol-related policy issues and often drawing on her own story as a starting point.

She does the same with her book, Drink: The Deadly Relationship Between Women And Alcohol, which has already met with rave reviews across the pond, described by Washington Post as ‘a wallop of a book’.

And it really is; part memoir and part discussion, Ann uses her knowledge of alcohol-related research and introduces other women’s stories of booze addiction. Much like a stiff scotch, it hits you from the very first taste.

It’s beautifully written, and perhaps it’s her honesty, the emotional rawness of her confessions as she recounts her early experiences growing up with an alcoholic mother, the sadness of a father who also eventually grew reliant on drink, her own eventual realisation that she too had become addicted to alcohol despite - or in some ways, perhaps partly due to - having a very successful career, and the subsequent challenge of AA meetings and adapting to life as a non-drinker which make the book so impacting.

But also, it’s incredibly interesting, as it forces us to look at something we are, as a society, in almost complete denial of.

“We live in an ‘alcogenic’ culture. We are so surrounded with alcohol messaging, be it from television, movies or marketing, that we don’t even see it - we have absorbed fully the notion that if you want to celebrate, relax, reward or entertain, alcohol will be involved,” she says.

She talks too about the ‘pinking’ of the alcohol industry, the influx of drinks and adverts aimed directly at women that have emerged in recent decades.

And we’ve ‘normalised’ drinking, she says, so much so that the recommended safe lowest guidelines [two to three units a day for women, and one standard size glass of wine equates to 2.3 units alone; not much right?] seem laughable. “When I talk about the drinking guidelines, a lot of people are just saying, ‘No, that’s not risky drinking, that’s normal’, “ Ann notes.

This is contributing to our denial of the impact our drinking habits are having.

“What we have not truly absorbed, is the link with breast cancer, for instance. And women are catching up with men [in terms of alcohol consumption] but classically, men have always been higher alcohol consumers. In the UK, women are starting to have parody, and that’s a really alarming reality where you’re seeing end stage liver disease in women in their 20s, full-blown alcoholism for women in their teens - this is a huge news story.”

According to research, around 15 per cent of breast cancer cases are linked to alcohol and one in six UK women develop some sort of health problem associated with drinking, while liver disease deaths have risen 20 per cent in a decade.

And when it comes to knocking them back, it isn’t a straightforward question of equality. Science tells us that metabolic and biological differences may make women more susceptible to associated health damage, and women also tend to become addicted more quickly.

Ann believes we need far more focus on the high-functioning female drinker.

“In many ways, I am the poster girl for what is an increasingly common female pattern; professional, highly educated, high functioning and probably in many cases, high bottom, which was my experience.

“I didn’t crack up a car, I didn’t lose my family, I didn’t go to the same depths as my mother, for instance, who was a classic Betty Ford kind of alcoholic from the Sixties, mixing Valium and alcohol. We’re dealing with a really interesting and scary emerging trend and the richer the country, the narrower the gap between men and women.

Drink: The Deadly Relationship Between Women & Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston is published on January 8 by Fourth Estate, priced £8.99