National Women's Health Policy

Alcohol consumption

Page last updated: 07 February 2011

Research reveals gender differences in alcohol consumption. Generally, women drink less alcohol than men.151 For women in Australia, it is estimated that harm from alcohol was the cause of 0.7 per cent of the burden of disease.152 This is substantially lower than for men (3.8 per cent of burden of disease).153 However, it is increasingly evident that alcohol consumption and high-risk drinking is on the rise among women, especially young women.154 Women’s rate of drinking at risky levels has been increasing at a greater rate since 1995 than that of men.155

Harmful alcohol consumption can contribute to a number of health issues including: cirrhosis of the liver; breast, oral, liver and colorectal cancer; stroke, inflammatory heart disease and hypertension; road traffic accidents; memory lapse; and falls, suicide and drowning.156

Male and female bodies may respond differently to alcohol due to differences in metabolism, blood chemistry and body fat composition. Gender analyses of alcohol consumption suggest that a range of social factors play a role in this increased consumption. It is a common theme in the research literature that women report using alcohol to challenge traditional gender roles.157 One study stated that the passivity expected of women was overturned with alcohol use and alcohol was seen as giving licence to break social norms expected of women.158

Drinking while pregnant is directly associated with poor health of mothers and babies, including maternal malnutrition and foetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Heavy alcohol use during pregnancy has also been associated with problems arising later in childhood, such as impaired learning ability and behavioural problems.159

Research into alcohol use among women from diverse population groups is limited. Alcohol studies rarely include sex disaggregated data for diverse groups. Information that is available is often minimal or dated.

The prevalence of risky or high-risk alcohol consumption has increased in all areas over time at what appear to be broadly similar rates. Compared to 1995, people in major cities, inner regional and other areas were 1.5 to 1.7 times as likely to engage in risky or high-risk alcohol consumption in 2004–05.160

More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are likely to abstain from drinking alcohol, but with higher levels of consumption among those who did drink than their non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander counterparts.161 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were three times as likely as non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to have drunk at short-term risky/high-risk levels at least once a week in the previous 12 months.162

Available research suggests that same sex attracted women report significantly higher levels of drug use, including alcohol, than the general population, possibly in reaction to homophobia, discrimination and rejection. 163 164

When women consume high levels of alcohol, they are more likely to experience some type of sexual aggression, including unwanted sexual contact, sexual coercion, attempted rape and rape.165

Studies also indicate evidence that intimate partner violence is also associated with hazardous alcohol use.166

Gender-sensitive programming and policy making has the potential to significantly improve these risk factors for women.