British Home Secretary David Blunkett denounced the rise of the "lager loutette" - the binge-drinking young woman - in July 2004. In a statement to the nation on the rise of drink-related violence, he said, "It is not chauvinistic to say the presence of women has often been a calming influence, in terms of young men starting to lay about each other," he added. The implications were, of course, that women ought to be playing the role of a "calming influence" and that this role is now a thing of the past.
The comment, though, did not draw strong criticism from feminists. Those who spoke out agree that it is a matter of concern that young women are increasingly adopting male drinking behavior.
Indeed, women themselves indulge in some self-flagellation the morning after. "I've done really stupid things like get into cars with friends who are really, really drunk," says one young woman in the 18-20 age bracket, cited in the government's Interim Analytical Report released in September 2003.
The government's strategy on countering alcohol abuse - announced in March 2004 - was based on this voluminous report on the nation's escalating alcohol consumption. Further measures are expected to emerge with a draft legislation on health, scheduled for later this year. "There are no plans to target women specifically," a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said. She added, however, that the government was giving out improved information on the dangers of alcohol abuse, targeting those most at risk, providing support for people with alcohol problems and labeling bottles with 'sensible drinking' messages.
It is fairly well-established that women break down alcohol less efficiently than men do. There are also studies which say that problems like liver damage occur more quickly and with less alcohol in women. However, while British men - as men elsewhere - drink far more than women do, the number of British women who drink to excess is growing at a much faster rate than that for men.
The Interim Report found that almost one in five women and one in three adult men exceeded the recommended guidelines of 14 and 21 units per week respectively. In 1988 by contrast, one in ten women and one in four men exceeded recommended guidelines. Slightly different figures cited by London-based Alcohol Concern, the national agency on alcohol misuse, say that the proportion of women drinking more than 14 units a week had increased from 10 per cent in 1988 to 17 per cent in 2002 - an increase of 70 per cent. It concluded that the proportion of men drinking more than 21 units per week had remained constant, and that women who drink to excess were an area of "special concern".
Young women are particularly prone to drinking and the average weekly consumption of women aged 16-24 years was 14 units compared with 3.8 units for women aged more than 65, Alcohol Concern said. Neither Alcohol Concern nor the government specified the size of the population samples on which their research was based.
Historically, Britain had been a relatively moderate consumer, compared with other European countries, chiefly wine producers such as France. In recent years, however, consumption has fallen or stabilized in most of these countries by contrast with Britain, where it is still rising. If present trends continue, Britain could rise from around the middle to near the top of the consumption league within the next 10 years, according to the Interim Report.
Particularly worrying is the fact that in Britain and other North European countries, drinking is often an end in itself. Drinking tends to take place outside the family unit and drunkenness in pubs is often tolerated, even expected. In Britain, binge-drinking accounts for 40 per cent of all drinking occasions by men and 22 per cent by women, the government says. Given that alcohol affects different people in different ways, binge-drinking is a much debated term, but the government has defined it as more than twice the daily guidelines in one day.
Refining the weekly guidelines in order to reflect patterns of drinking more faithfully, in 1995 the government recommended that men should consume no more than three to four units per day and women two to three, though consistent consumption at the upper limit was not advised. A unit is defined as eight grams of absolute alcohol, which is the equivalent of a small glass of wine at nine per cent strength, one measure of spirits (usually 30 ml), or half a pint of ordinary strength beer.
The strains of juggling a career and heavy domestic responsibilities could be one explanation for why women are drinking more. Alcohol Concern found that 71 per cent of women from professional households had consumed alcohol in the previous week, compared with 51 per cent from unskilled households. Among younger and single women binge-drinkers, alcoholic excess is associated with the pursuit of a sexual partner and, in some cases, with low self-esteem. The government also believes that the relative cheapness of drinks, especially during the 'happy hour' rebates, and peer group pressures influence women's drinking patterns.
In an opinion piece in Britain's left-leaning newspaper, The Guardian, titled 'Free to vomit in the gutter', Angela McRobbie, feminist academic and professor of communications at Goldsmiths College, London, warned that traditional feminist values that sought to establish equality of men and women for the benefit of both sexes were being worn away. "Second-wave feminists advocated sexual freedom, but these contemporary freedoms are a travesty of such ideals. The hard-drinking culture, along with the requirement to be 'up for it', even if this means casual sex in car parks, marks the corrosion of feminist values," she wrote. Instead, therefore, of campaigning for the kind of equality that improves lives, they resort to drinking and cavorting with the louts - freedoms that McRobbie argued are "hugely problematic".
The irony is that even in 21st century Britain, women are strongly condemned for drunkenness, a traditionally male behavior. Research shows that it is not so much intoxication per se as aggressive or 'unfeminine' behavior that is frowned upon. In a manner of speaking, therefore, women do have a bigger drinking problem. "The fact that a large proportion of women believe that society is more disapproving of female drinking continues to act as a barrier to women seeking help," argues Alcohol Concern on its website.
The heightened level of public awareness brought about by government and other measures could be a step towards overcoming that barrier.