From Bridget Jones-style singletons knocking back schooners of chardonnay, to yummy mummies cracking open the gin at 4pm and "ladettes" rolling on the pavement outside nightclubs, British women have gained a bad reputation when it comes to drink. But new research indicates that the female half of the nation may be consuming less alcohol than stereotypes suggest, with 73 per cent of young women claiming to drink less than the recommended weekly allowance.
A survey by the pollster YouGov found that 73 per cent of women aged 25 to 34 drink less than 14 units of alcohol a week, with 75 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds, and 79 per cent of 35 to 44-year-olds, making the same claim.
It seems this restraint may be partly fuelled by vanity, with 74 per cent admitting that they were "constantly aware" of their appearance and behaviour on nights out. At the same time, advertisements are emphasising the effects of alcohol on the appearance to persuade women to drink less. The Government's Drink Aware campaign has highlighted alcohol's high calorie content, while the drinks company Martini has just launched "Stay Beautiful", a low-alcohol range promoted by the actress Thandie Newton.
"We are seeing more women in their late 20s and early 30s with higher self-esteem. Their career, health and the way they look is increasingly more important," said Georgia Foster, author of The Drink Less Mind.
But alcohol awareness campaigners warn that while women may be sticking to recommended weekly limits, they could still be exceeding the two to three units a day limit, and thus still "binge-drinking".
"It's a step in the right direction that some women are drinking less," said Chris Sorek, chief executive of the charity Drinkaware. "However, women who drink heavily in one night might technically be consuming under the weekly recommendations but are actually still putting themselves at risk."
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the average number of units consumed a week by women fell from 9.9 in 2007 to 7.7 in 2008. It warns, though, that under-reporting is prevalent in such surveys. "Obtaining reliable information about drinking or any sensitive topic is difficult and it is generally recognised that social surveys record lower levels of alcohol consumption than might be expected," said a spokesman.
Last year 325,891 women were admitted to UK hospitals with alcohol-related conditions, compared with 537,366 men. This figure has almost doubled for both sexes in the past five years. "Women who drink more than the recommended two to three units a day can significantly increase their chance of developing serious health conditions like liver disease, breast cancer, infertility and depression," said Mr Sorek. "Having a lot to drink in one go can also lead to more short-term problems like fatigue, weight gain and bad skin – not to mention compromised personal safety."
The new research suggests that women do not know how many units their drinks contain, with 75 per cent unable to assess correctly the number of units in a pint of beer, glass of wine or spirits measure.
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Kate Ferris-Neely, 24, MA student, Sheffield
"I definitely drink less than I used to. I'm happy now going out and just having a couple of drinks – that wouldn't have happened in the past. I probably worry more about the calorie content of drinks than the damage to my liver, which is why I choose white wine or spirits over beer. I'm petite so my body can't take much alcohol, and also I get bad hangovers.
"I'm probably within the recommended weekly limit but sometimes above the daily maximum. I don't really drink on week nights, but if I go out for dinner with my boyfriend, we'll share a bottle of wine. If I go out with friends I'll have a glass of wine while I'm getting ready, a couple of glasses of wine when I'm out, and then move on to vodka or cocktails."