Drunk & disorderly: Women in UK are worst binge drinkers in world

By Roger Dobson, Sophie Goodchild and Marie Woolf 
Published: 22 October 2006 


Women in England and Ireland are officially the
world's biggest binge drinkers, according to a unique
study of global alcohol consumption. 

One in three 17- to 30-year-olds is now classed as a
heavy drinker, bingeing on four or more drinks in one
session at least once a fortnight.

These disturbing figures are 11 times higher than
those of Germany and Italy, prompting warnings that
record numbers of women face liver damage and
premature death unless they curb their alcohol

The findings are based on a survey of more than 17,000
women and men from 21 countries, including Belgium,
France and the United States, in the largest study
ever carried out into worldwide drinking habits.

The disclosure will alarm policy-makers struggling to
combat Britain's growing drink problem, which has led
to an escalation in anti-social behaviour, lost
working hours and long-term health problems, including
cancer and heart problems.

A new government advertising campaign will this week
highlight how drunkenness puts women at risk of sexual
assault. Studies show that more than three-quarters -
81 per cent - of sex attack victims have been drinking
before being attacked.

A review by the Association of Chief Police Officers
of drug-rape attacks has found that in many cases
women had been drinking heavily rather than been
targeted by men using date-rape drugs. The Government
is considering tighter laws so that even when a woman
has consented to sex, men can be prosecuted for rape,
if she was drunk at the time.

New Department of Health figures for England and Wales
show that more than one in six women aged between 16
and 64 are either addicted to alcohol or suffer health
problems as a result of drinking. Nine per cent of
women are now classified as binge drinkers, consuming
four units or more per session.

The study reveals that excessive drinking has soared
in England, but has declined in Germany and France. In
Ireland, nearly two-thirds of young women are rated as
heavy drinkers. But even though some 26 per cent of
British men binge drink, England does not feature at
the top of the male heavy drinkers league table. This
is dominated by Belgium, Colombia, Ireland and Poland.

Dr Andrew Steptoe, co-author of the report, said heavy
drinking was a worldwide problem, but that England and
Ireland had high figures compared with mainland

"Although not all young heavy drinkers end up being
heavy drinkers in later life, they are at higher risk
later for health problems," said Dr Steptoe, of the
department of epidemiology and public health at
University College London.

Doctors also blame the drinks industry for
deliberately targeting women with female-friendly
drinks and décor. They want ministers to exercise more
control instead of allowing the industry to
self-regulate. England, Scotland and Ireland are the
only countries in western Europe, apart from Denmark,
where alcohol consumption is rising.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Owen 

The Vodka monologues: 'Women now drink like men but we
don't have the livers for it' 
Paula Hamilton lost her modelling career to her
bingeing on bottles of vodka. For 20 years she's been
on and off the wagon, and only now can soberly reflect
on the price she paid for her excessive drinking, as
she tells Jonathan Owen 
Published: 22 October 2006 


Paula Hamilton was an Eighties icon, the impossibly
glamorous woman in the Volkswagen Golf television
advert who blithely discarded all her worldly
possessions except her car keys. But for more than 20
years, the model has struggled to overcome her
addiction to alcohol, a disease that derailed her
career, destroyed her relationships and nearly took
her life. 

Her first drink was at the age of five when her nanny
gave her a hot apple cider. At the age of 13, she got
drunk for the first time. By the age of 24, Hamilton
was bingeing on bottles of vodka. "I knew it was a
naughty thing to drink so much but I liked the way
that it made me feel. I didn't feel conscious of my
body and whether I looked pretty or not," says the
former model who was discovered by David Bailey and
partied with Jack Nicholson.

"As you get older, you learn that it [alcohol] can
take away painful feelings. If the alcohol hadn't been
there I'd have committed suicide as a teenager. It's
like being tortured and your mind says 'drink or

Like many damaged people, her way of coping was to run
away in the hope that a new life in a foreign country
would solve her problems. Hamilton fled to New Zealand
but her sobriety was short-lived. Within months, she
had started drinking again and was arrested for
drink-driving. By 2003, she had to return to the UK
for treatment.

Her relapse was a "desperate time" and the "lowest
point of my life". "You can't imagine how
mind-numbingly disappointing it is and you are just so
ashamed of yourself," she says. "I didn't have any
money left - it all went on treatment and alcohol. I
don't know how I got back to the UK. I was on
autopilot and I don't remember going home but I do
remember waking up in hospital and thinking 'what am I
doing here?'. I was dying and didn't know if I could
hang on."

After six months waiting for detox, Hamilton was given
a place at Broadway Lodge, a clinic in
Weston-super-Mare, and then spent 10 months at a
treatment centre in Cornwall so she could face the
world again. Her alcoholism has not only cost her in
health terms but also financially: she estimates that
she has spent more than £500,000 over her lifetime on

Today the 44-year-old is sober and has been for the
past two and a half years. And Hamilton has made an
unlikely return to prominence as a judge on the
television series Britain's Next Top Model, thanks to
a chance encounter with an old friend from her
modelling days.

The experience has been mixed. On one hand, the show
has restarted her career only 18 months after coming
off benefits but, on the other, it has reminded her
just how lonely and isolated she felt as a young woman
struggling with her demons in a ruthless industry.

"It was very difficult growing up in my industry as an
alcoholic; it was very loathsome. In this country we
love to label people. I like myself today. I don't let
people in the industry bully me or make me insecure."

As a survivor, Hamilton, who now lives in Berkshire,
is keen to show there is real hope for sufferers,
although she admits that the road to recovery is hard.
She is also savagely critical of the lack of treatment
available in Britain, especially for women, and likens
alcohol to "legal social heroin". "It's horrific to be
on the receiving end of this illness and to be a
British citizen. In Buckinghamshire, for example,
there's just one bed for alcoholics in detox. There
are thousands of alcoholics waiting to go into that
one bed and in the meantime their families are falling
down because they cannot cope.

"We are actually a very alcoholic country - other
countries don't seem to have problems with it on the
scale that we do in England. But we are being mocked
by the rest of Europe for our short-sightedness and
our ignorance about an epidemic of alcoholism that is
taking its toll of our young.

"There's a lot of binge-drinking now in this country
with kids openly drinking on the streets. That just
didn't happen in our time. Where are they getting the
money from and where's the discipline at home?

"There are people out there who have low self-worth
and for whom alcohol is deadly because the rest of our
society will shame them into their own death. It is
horrific, and if we don't help them England is going
to end up flat on its face. Alcohol leads to mental
health problems. People who abuse it will end up in
the mental health system."

The rise in women drinking does not surprise her.

"We used to play different roles in life [to men] but
now we're not playing such different roles. The roles
are blending and there's nothing wrong with that. But
it means that women now drink like men and we don't
have the livers for it. We do things we don't want to
do, sleep with people we shouldn't; we wake up ashamed
and don't talk about our hangovers. It's a crazy

Hamilton is now driven to do for drinking what Jamie
Oliver has done for school dinners by educating young
people about how to have a good time without drinking.

"I'm an alcoholic turned good. Let me help the
Government turn it around," she says.

"We've got programmes on nannies. Jamie's teaching us
how to cook. Don't we want a programme about how not
to drink and have a really good time or how to drink
normally and have a good time?

"We need to have warning labels and education about
this drug. We need people like me to be employed to go
into schools and help to educate children of the
dangers. The Government should take people like me as
seriously as they do Jamie Oliver rather than judging

Staying sober will always be a matter of life or death
for the former model - "it would be absolute suicide
if I picked up a drink" - but she is happier now than
she has been for many years.

"When you go into sobriety, as I did many times, the
illness progresses. I used to be a binge-drinker but
then got to the stage where if I picked up a drink I
would drink every day until I passed out and then get
another bottle. For me, it would be absolute suicide
if I picked up a drink.

"The most joyous thought last week was that I woke up
and giggled at my reflection in the mirror. In the
past I did everything to get away from myself but now
I am content. The last year of my life has been the
happiest - the only real happiness that I have ever

"This [excessive drinking] is a social illness. There
is not one family in England that can stand up and say
honestly: 'We don't have an alcoholic in our family'.
There's always Auntie Jane stuck in a cupboard
somewhere that nobody really talks about."


" I am a recovering alcoholic. To stay sober I go to a
lot of AA meetings. I have to keep a permanent check
on myself "

Trinny Woodall, TV Stylist

"All the fame and attention - I didn't handle it. I
dealt with it by getting out of the system and living
in a mountain"

Cerys Matthews, Singer

"There was my divorce, my dad dying, Matt dying and I
was trying to cope with being famous. It was too much"

Caroline Aherne, Comedian

"At its worst, it meant ending up with my knickers
around my head in a bed I didn't recognise, surrounded
by vomit and having not the faintest idea where I was

Anne Robinson, Journalist and TV Quiz Show Host

"I was in hospital 32 times and nearly died. I was
drinking three or four bottles of vodka a day"

Mary Coughlan, Singer

"I had no friends left. I was more and more isolated,
more and more paranoid. My health was gone "

Marian Keyes, Author

"I'm still a recovering alcoholic and I will avoid
anything that might drag me down "

Sophie Anderton, Model

"Everyone who has a glass of wine when they get home
from work to relax is an alcoholic, and then there's
the binge alcoholic, which is what I am "

Kerry Katona, Former Atomic Kitten

"My friends would wake up with just a hangover but I
was suffering blackouts "

Denise Welch, Actress 

Dying for a drink: 1.4 million of us - and that's just
the bingers 
You don't have to be an alcoholic to be a binger. But
the effect on health and the damage to those around us
are as alarming. And women are most at risk. By Paul
Published: 22 October 2006 


Take a sip of vodka. You may notice a burning
sensation on your tongue. That's the alcohol hitting
pain receptors wrapped around your taste buds, the
same nerves that warn you of high temperatures. From
the moment it passes your lips, alcohol is setting off
alarms and, mostly, causing damage. 

English and Irish women drink more heavily than any
others in the world, as our front page today shows.
Whatever their reasons, the science suggests they are
taking more risks than men.

The latest research shows that women become
drink-dependent more quickly than men. If a man and a
woman drink the same amount of alcohol, her body will
suffer more harm.

Women also have to worry about breast cancer, unwanted
pregnancies, and causing brain damage and skeletal
deformities in their unborn babies. All these are
linked to drinking.

Alcohol is so popular because it lets us have more fun
at pubs, clubs and parties by working on the central
nervous system to suppress inhibitions. But it also
injures organs in both sexes, from the brain to the

Officially, 8,000 deaths a year in Britain are
directly linked to alcohol, more than double the
figure 15 years ago. And some charities estimate that
the real number may be five times higher. Drink is,
for example, involved in 40 per cent of fatal fires,
15 per cent of drownings and 65 per cent of suicides.

The costs are not just to individual bodies. The NHS
spends £1.7bn a year dealing with the effects of
alcohol abuse. Drink causes 17 million lost working
days a year, costing the economy £20bn.

Beyond the physical and financial, the effects of
alcohol can be felt throughout society. More than one
million adults are alcoholics. An estimated 1.4
million are binge drinkers. And 1.3 million children
are affected by alcohol abuse. Drink is also involved
in 40 per cent of domestic abuse cases. You only have
to walk through a town centre on a Saturday night to
find evidence of alcohol-related violence and

The first difference between male and female drinkers,
albeit a small one, comes when that nip of vodka
splashes into the belly. There, a tiny amount of the
alcohol is broken down by an enzyme called alcohol
dehydrogenase. A man has slightly more of this than a
woman, meaning that his body is already dealing with
the vodka more efficiently.

But for both sexes it is not the stomach that does
most of the work, says Professor Ian Gilmore,
president of the Royal College of Physicians and
chairman of its alcohol committee. Most alcohol enters
the blood through the walls of the small intestine.
That's why eating while drinking is so important; it
slows the movement of liquor into the bowels and hence
into the blood. Alcohol is a simple molecule, small
enough to cross into any cell. It is also a solvent,
able to dissolve lipids, the fatty molecules that make
up cell membranes. Women have more fatty tissues than
men - for example, the breasts - which may be one
reason they are more susceptible to drink.

From the intestines, alcohol is taken by the portal
vein to the liver, the body's chemical factory and the
main filter for toxins. Here, again, alcohol
dehydrogenase gets to work.

The enzyme comes in several different,
genetically-determined forms, called polymorphisms.
These variations explain why some people - usually men
- can tolerate more drink than others. But even in the
most efficient males, the enzymes can break down only
about one unit of alcohol - eight grams - an hour.

There is a downside to the process. It produces a
poison, namely acetaldehyde, a chemical relative of
the formaldehyde used by Damien Hirst to pickle his
cows. This is what makes you feel sick after a heavy
drinking session. It is in turn broken down by a
second set of enzymes, becoming water and carbon
dioxide, but the process takes time. Before the liver
finishes its work, the poisons from even a single unit
of alcohol may have been round the body more than 100

The liver clears alcohol out of the blood, but is not
immune itself to alcohol damage. About a third of
heavy drinkers, such as the late George Best, end up
with liver disease. Who gets it and who doesn't
probably comes down to a genetic lottery. Some people
are just more vulnerable than others.

As the liver cells are destroyed, they are replaced by
scar tissue, a process called cirrhosis. This has two
effects. First it reduces the amount of chemical
processing and decontaminating that can be done by the
liver. Second, it reduces the blood flow through the
organ. In time, the circulatory system finds ways to
bypass the damaged liver, taking unpurified blood
directly to the heart. This can kill you.

Only half of heavy drinkers are physically dependent
on alcohol. The others could easily cut back or quit
altogether. "They're waiting for an early warning,"
says Professor Gilmore. But they're not likely to get
one. The first outward sign of cirrhosis of the liver
is a distended belly and yellowish pallor. By then,
the disease has reached its end stage.

In many cases, only a transplant can save the patient.
But potential recipients far outnumber donors. Eleven
thousand women a year are admitted to hospital with
cirrhosis of the liver, but fewer than 1,000 organs
are available for transplant.

As the vodka moves through the blood from the liver to
the heart, there is a shot of good news, though. Small
amounts of alcohol are known to reduce levels of
so-called bad cholesterol that clog and harden
arteries, leading to high blood pressure and heart
attacks. Unfairly, the benefits are more marked in

"But as a nation we're drinking well above these
cardio-protective levels," says Professor Gilmore. For
heavy drinkers, the benefits are quickly outweighed by
the risk of cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart

Binge drinking can interfere with the sympathetic
nervous system so that the heart beats irregularly, a
condition that doctors call "holiday heart" because it
is so common among people who spend their time off
from work knocking back pints. In some cases, it can
lead to sudden death.

From the heart, alcohol in the blood is pumped to
every other organ, including the brain, within a
couple of minutes of it entering the blood stream. And
unlike many other toxins, it can slip into the brain.

The immediate effect on the brain is to shut it down.
Our inhibitions are the first to be depressed, hence
the pleasure. But soon afterwards, we lose the ability
to make the decisions and judgements necessary for
safe driving, and eventually even basic functions such
as walking or standing up become impossible.

By the time blood alcohol levels reach 360mg/ml - four
and a half times the legal driving limit - most people
are unconscious; by 400mg/ml, all but the most
hardened drinkers are dead, usually because the
alcohol has depressed the part of the brain that
controls respiration. The victims simply forget to
breathe. Women, because they are, on average, smaller
than men, reach this level with fewer drinks.

And even if they don't die suddenly, heavy drinkers
can suffer from brain damage. Research using CT brain
scans at the University of Heidelberg showed not only
that brain mass was lower among alcoholics, but also
that women suffered the same percentage decrease even
though they had drunk far less.

"There is evidence for a faster progress of the events
leading to dependence among female alcoholics and an
earlier onset of adverse consequences of alcoholism,"
said Professor Karl Mann of the University of
Heidelberg. "This suggests that women may be more
vulnerable to chronic alcohol consumption."

Other less-well known drink-related illnesses include
chronic pancreatitis, a painful condition that reduces
the ability to digest food and leads to diarrhoea and
diabetes. Bone marrow - where blood cells are grown -
can be damaged, leading to poor clotting in wounds and
reduced immunity to infection.

Osteoporosis, a weakening of the bones already common
in older women, can be made worse. And skeletal
muscles, like those of the heart, can be weakened. The
movement of the tiny hairs in the lungs that sweep
contaminants out can also be impaired, making chronic
drinkers more prone to diseases such as pneumonia.

The danger of having an accident while inebriated is
obvious, but other risks are more subtle. For
instance, 80 per cent of women report that alcohol was
involved in their first sexual experience. That
lowering of inhibitions can also lead to unprotected
sex, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted
diseases, including HIV/Aids. Research shows that 81
per cent of rape victims have been drinking before the
attack; undoubtedly many attackers have been drinking

For many women, one of the greatest fears is foetal
alcohol syndrome. During the first three months of a
pregnancy, foetal stem cells are changing into forms
specific to particular organs. Drugs such as alcohol
that cross the placental barrier during this period
can have dire effects, including severe brain damage
and other birth defects.

For women who drink, the problem is twofold. Early in
a pregnancy, they may not ever realise that they are
carrying a child and should be abstaining. There is no
known minimum safe level. One drink at the wrong time
can damage the baby.

And then there is cancer. Areas that come into contact
with concentrated alcohol, such as the mouth and
throat, are more likely to develop tumours, as are
organs with a high proportion of fatty tissues, such
as the breasts.

People have been boozing since the dawn of
civilisation - the earliest evidence is from
9,000-year-old fragments of neolithic clay pots found
in northern China. Some archaeologists have speculated
that agriculture itself may have been invented to
provide crops for making beer. Attempts at prohibition
in America early in the last century were such dismal
failures that no one seriously thinks they can stop
people from drinking.

Fortunately for those who enjoy an occasional tipple,
the doctors aren't demanding that every woman climb on
the wagon. Professor Gilmore would like to see alcohol
become more expensive and harder to find, but says
that, unless you are pregnant, moderate drinking is
not a problem. Moderate means 14 units a week. You do
the maths.

Your health: How alcohol affects the body

STOMACH: eating while drinking slows the rate at which
alcohol enters the blood from intestines

LIVER: vital in removing poison, the organ is itself
scarred by alcohol. Cirrhosis hits without warning

HEART: can benefit from low levels of alcohol, but
heavy drinkers risk 'holiday heart' attacks

LUNGS: become more vulnerable to pneumonia. Too much
alcohol and the brain will forget to breathe

PANCREAS: most cases of the painful disease
pancreatitis are linked to alcohol abuse

BRAIN: women suffer the same percentage of cell death
as men, but after drinking less alcohol

BONES: both sexes suffer marrow damage, but women are
more prone to osteoporosis

BREASTS: women have more fatty tissues, where alcohol
accumulates, raising cancer risks

WOMB: babies can suffer birth defects including brain
damage if the mother drinks during pregnancy 


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