Soaring levels of alcohol abuse among British women mean that they are more likely to die from cirrhosis of the liver than cervical cancer, the Government's chief medical officer warns today.

Liam Donaldson's first annual report says rates of cirrhosis, permanent and irreversible liver damage most commonly caused by excessive drinking, are rising among men and women.

The British Liver Trust warned that cirrhosis was "far more of an equal opportunities illness" after death rates in women rose from five per 100,000 deaths in 1994 to 6.7 per 100,000 in 1999, and in men from 7.3 per 100,000 to 10.9 per 100,000 for the same period.

Experts believe the problem is largely the result of equal opportunities in the workplace. Research published last year in the United States found that women who drank heavily were likely to have an advanced level degree, never married, have no children and be employed in a male-dominated occupation.

The Institute of Alcohol Studies says that the picture in Britain is similar, with problem drinking most common among young professional women. The so-called ladette culture, in which drinking has not only become a socially acceptable activity for women,but an expected one, has been partly blamed for the phenomenon.

As female income has increased, the price of alcohol has fallen in real terms. This has not been lost onadvertising agencies, which have aggressively aimed at the growing market, and the drinks industry, which has developed "female friendly" bottled products.

Research also shows women appear to be more susceptible to liver damage from alcohol. They develop diseases such as cirrhosis after a comparatively shorter period of heavy drinking, and at a lower intake than men.

There has been a sharp increase in the number of women exceeding the maximum recommended levels of consumption of 14 drinks a week, from 10 per cent in 1986 to 14 per cent in 1996. A recent report predicted female alcohol consumption would rise by 30 per cent between 1994 and 2004.

Department of Health studies show the proportion of heavy female drinkers is much higher in younger age groups. Researchers say they are seeing young women, some in their twenties, suffering from liver damage caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

In severe cases, the only effective treatment for cirrhosis is a liver transplant. From 1996 to 2000, £24m was spent on transplants for patients suffering from alcohol-related problems.

Nigel Hughes, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said there was a problem in Britain, compared with Europe and America where alcohol-related liver disease had fallen. "We are seeing more younger women with alcohol problems," he said. "Where we were seeing 40 to 60-year-old women, we are now seeing twentysomethings with severe alcoholic illness.

"In work and social environments, people tend to match each other drink for drink and it is apparent that with the two genders you can't do that."

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