Deborah Orr: Make mine a double standard

'The unadorned truth is that more and more people in Britain are drinking too much, whether they be men, women or children'

Wednesday 12 December 2001 01:00

I wonder how Zoë Ball, Sara Cox and Ulrika Jonsson feel about being fingered so egregiously. The three women have been named again and again over the past few days as nothing less than the chief architects of the increase in cirrhosis of the liver in young women. Even in a culture which is obsessed with singling out individual personalities for blame or praise as good or bad "role models", this seems a little harsh.

For my part, I'd just like to redress the balance and reassure the trio a little. All my female friends and I had the most appalling drinking habits long before Ulrika had even heard of a warm front, and certainly before Radio 1 had considered letting girls play tunes at times of the day when quite a few people would be listening. So relax, ladies, and down another litre of Polish pure if you feel you must. You know the danger. Answer for your own liver's damage.

The rest of the nation will simply have to do the same. Or at least the men will.

The most astonishing thing about the latest headlines on alcohol is that they've been treated so single-mindedly as a gender issue. The message is that now that young women are drinking to extreme excess, there is something to worry about. The young men, it is implied, can go hang.

But, actually, the annual report from Professor Liam Donaldson, the Government's chief medical officer, highlights an eightfold increase in deaths from cirrhosis among men in the past 30 years, and a sevenfold increase among women. Further, while five in every 100,000 female deaths in 1994 were due to cirrhosis, in 1999 that figure had increased to 6.7. For men, the increase has been from 7.3 to 10.9.

Likewise, in 1988, 10 per cent of women drank over the recommended limit while in 1998 15 per cent did. For men the figure has remained a steady 27 per cent. In other words, men always have been, and are still, more at risk than women. So surely there's a double-standard working here?

In the Sunday papers, the lovely ladettes and their influence were cited as sinisterly pernicious, while George Best was referred to, in passing, as a "legendary drinker". He's not a legendary drinker! He's a tragic, ruined, cirrhosis-ridden alcoholic. Since my early childhood I've seen filthy, degraded, broken men lying in gutters, deranged and dehumanised by booze. These souls form part of the landscape and nobody has ever cared much at all. They are nothing more than outcasts, a price willingly paid.

That's certainly a double standard, a willfully stupid and heartless one that has been in operation for far too long. Just a couple of years ago, when he was loosening the licencing laws, Jack Straw spoke of rewarding "people who could hold their drink". That seems to me a far more irresponsible statement about alcohol use than anything ladettes have said.

Alcohol abuse has long been a scourge. Anybody with an alcoholic in the family, who has twisted and turned desperately in a battle to find some help and support in dealing with it, can attest to the difficulty in finding useful, practical acknowledgement of that. The alcoholic is in no less trouble than the drug addict, so it's odd that while Government spending on the prevention and treatment of alcohol abuse is around the £1m mark, £91m was spent last year on programmes for drugs, especially since the former abuse is far more widespread.

But suddenly more women are hitting the bottle, and Professor Donaldson's calls for health warnings on alcohol advertising, and possibly on bottles and cans as well, are being seriously considered. I know that some men would forcefully argue that there's nothing new here. Campaigners for men's rights are extremely bitter about how much more is done to tackle women's health concerns than men's. And the most cursory glance at gender-specific health funding confirms that there is a huge bias.

While some angles on the alcohol story suggest a disproportionate emphasis on the health concerns of women, others can be read as attacking women's desire for equal treatment. One argument runs that it is gender equality in the workplace, with Ms Ball, Ms Cox and Ms Jonnson implicated here too, that is responsible for the change in female drinking habits.

Some of the intellectual underpining for this comes from research carried out recently in the United States. It found that women drinkers were more likely to have a degree, be unmarried, childless and employed in a male-dominated occupation. The Institute of Alcohol Studies confirms similar patterns in Britain.

All that this suggests to me is that younger people whose lives are focused on aggressive work with the accompanying aggressive social life, and who have a high disposable income, are more likely to drink a lot, whatever gender they may be. Some commentators have said that women in after-work socialising environments tend to match men drink-for-drink, even though it is well-known that their bodies cannot handle as much alcohol. True enough, but hardly an explanation for the doubling of the rate of teenage drinking in the past decade, or the increase that has been seen among men more generally as well.

The unadorned truth is that more and more people in Britain are drinking too much, whether they be men, women or children. The current emphasis on female drinking is hugely overstated and probably counter-productive. Singling out women for finger-wagging advice will make women boozers feel patronised and picked on, and usher male boozers even more firmly into the arms of the drinkers' most productive companion, denial.

What is important is that the dangers of alcohol and its attendant health risks are finally being addressed. Forget about gender and concentrate more on people. Concentrate, too, on alcoholism, which is a motor for heavy drinking more generally. Very often the backbone of a bunch of young drinking buddies, the core who are always up for a big night out and always egging the others on to further excess will, in years to come, turn out to have been not "legendary drinkers", but dazzlingly high-functioning alcoholics whose addiction eventually caught up with them.

The manner of the addressing is familiar: education, public campaigns, counselling and treatment. All of this will help, as it does already in interventions on a range of social ills. But we have to look at ourselves as a cultural whole as well. There may be too much being made of the gender issues around alcohol. But maybe there is not enough being made of the cultural ones. Neither in Europe nor in America is binge-drinking soaring in popularity the way it is in Britain, as Professor Donaldson pointed out.

Drinking binges are an easy release from tension, an escape from the self that can be made quickly and with barely any effort at all. They can be a fantastic release and brilliant fun. But, speaking as someone who once indulged in them three or four times a week and who still isn't above a modest blow-out on occasion, there is a sort of fabulous, eager desperation to them as well.

I talk sometimes to friends who have binged a lot in the past, or who still find themselves doing so far more often than is good for the smooth functioning of their lives. Among them is an awareness of an emptiness that only that sort of unbridled hedonism can offer total escape from. It's a description I recognise, though as a younger woman I could not begin to admit that.

I wouldn't presume to say that this is always the reason why people drink with such intensity and with such a willing surrender of control. What I can say, though, is that it is extremely interesting how, in a particular country at a particular time, so very many people are so very, very keen to get completely out of their heads. And it's not because Ms Cox, Ms Ball and Ms Jonsson gave them the idea.

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