Revealed: Huge rise in women drinking themselves to death

The number of women dying from alcohol-related diseases has soared in recent years, new figures show, with experts blaming the rise on brands deliberately targeting their marketing at women.

The latest data reveals that the number of women who lost their lives in this way in the UK increased by 37 per cent in five years – surging from 2,399 to 3,293 between 2016 and 2021 and marking the highest level since records began.

While more men than women still die from alcohol-related diseases, the figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of deaths is rising substantially faster in women than in men – with the latter seeing a 29 per cent increase over the same period, from 4,928 to 6,348.

Debbie Shawcross, a professor of hepatology and chronic liver failure at King’s College London’s Institute of Liver Studies, said liver disease is a particular problem in female patients.

“Women tend to present with more severe liver disease, particularly alcohol-related hepatitis, and do so after a shorter period of excessive drinking and at a lower daily alcohol intake than men,” she said. “This can be accounted for by differences in body size and composition – less muscle mass.”

Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of the charity Alcohol Change, claimed that the main factor causing the surge is the “incessant marketing of drinks towards women”, as he called for stricter regulation of alcohol advertising.

Abigail Wilson, from WithYou, a drug, alcohol and mental health charity, described the rise in women dying from alcohol-related liver disease as “very concerning” as she argued that alcohol is as damaging as heroin and crack cocaine. “Women generally are less likely to die of alcohol-related causes than men. There is always a gap there, but the gap is closing, and that is really concerning.”

The Independent can also report that:

  • The number of deaths in women attributed to alcohol-related liver disease in England increased from 1,533 to 2,190 between 2015 and 2021 – a 42 per cent rise
  • The total number of male deaths linked to alcohol-related liver disease climbed by 34 per cent to 3,870 deaths in the same timeframe
  • Recent research found that the proportion of British women who are binge-drinking is the joint highest out of 33 countries
  • Exclusive polling from WithYou shows that almost two-thirds of those who seek support online are women, with more than half seeking support for their alcohol use

I didn’t just lose her, I lost her to the alcohol first. You lose them twice

Roxanne Knighton

Roxanne Knighton, who lives in Staffordshire, told The Independent of the pain of losing her mother Melanie to alcohol-related liver disease in March 2022. She was diagnosed with the illness in her late forties.

“All the earliest memories were mum drinking,” the 34-year-old recalled. “She was alcohol dependent – it made her function.”

Ms Knighton said her mother never went to the doctor and was in denial about her drinking. So Ms Knighton made the call instead.

“It was me who called the doctors as she couldn’t get up off the sofa – she was full of fluid,” she added. “It had gone into her belly, she had to be drained, they got 12 litres from her.

Recovering alcoholic’s story

“I was looking after her each day. It was four years until she died. It still hurts. I didn’t just lose her, I lost her to the alcohol first. You lose them twice.”

Raising concerns about the “feminisation” of alcohol marketing, Dr Piper highlighted the annual reports of major alcohol brands, which reveal that they are deliberately targeting women.

“This is leading to deaths,” he said. “The second reason would be pricing – alcohol is more affordable now than it has been at any point in the last 20 years, so people are drinking more.”

He called for ministers to introduce tighter rules on alcohol marketing and to roll out minimum unit pricing for alcohol to make drinks with higher alcohol content more expensive.

Other campaigners warned that it is harder for women to get support for alcohol misuse as services are often tailored to help men. Women routinely do the lion’s share of childcare, meaning they cannot physically find the time, they say.

Helena Conibear, chief executive of the Alcohol Education Trust, attributed the rise in women dying from alcohol-related liver disease to a significant increase in binge-drinking in the late Nineties and early 2000s.

Women tend to present with more severe liver disease, particularly alcohol-related hepatitis, and do so after a shorter period of excessive drinking and at a lower daily alcohol intake than men

Professor Debbie Shawcross

Meanwhile, Prof Shawcross argued that women who struggle with alcoholism endure greater “cultural stigma” than their male counterparts, which may deter them from pursuing help.

Alcohol-related liver disease often has no symptoms for many years, she added, while women also have lower levels of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol.

Vanessa Hebditch, of the British Liver Trust, said: “With alcohol becoming increasingly accessible and affordable, as well as more ingrained in our culture, more women are drinking to levels that put their health at risk.”

Siobhan Herbert, a project manager, told The Independent she started drinking a bottle of wine every night – and sometimes two bottles on weekend evenings – around 20 years ago.

“When I went out, I drank less,” the 52-year-old added. “I was a bit of a closet drinker. At home, there would be nobody around to witness me getting trolleyed. My mother was an alcoholic; she was exactly the same. You would have thought growing up, seeing all that through my teenage years, it would stop you, but it is very addictive.”

Ms Herbert said she eventually stopped drinking in June 2022 as she was becoming fed up with the impact alcohol was having on her physical and mental health.

She added: “I wasn’t putting Baileys on my cornflakes, but every day I felt awful. I felt tired and anxious. I am a whole new woman now. I feel alive. I have more energy. I am sharper. I do not have anxiety. My depression is gone, and all of the problems I was blaming on the menopause have massively improved.”

Sandra Parker coaches women to help them cut down on their alcohol consumption

(Sandra Parker)

Sandra Parker, a self-professed “classic binge-drinker”, said she would struggle to know how much alcohol she had consumed because she would black out, and would sometimes be in bed for two days afterwards.

The 54-year-old, who stopped drinking in 2018, now coaches women to help them stop drinking or cut down on their alcohol consumption. She describes her clients as successful, professional middle-class women who are secretly drinking harmful amounts of wine at home.

“They may have a single drink when they are out with people from work, or they may not even drink, but they come home and they have a bottle of wine,” she added. “They have learnt that when they have a drink, they feel less stressed, and it becomes a dependency where they really crave that feeling each night.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “Alcohol misuse can ruin lives and destroy families, which is why we are acting to support those most at risk.

“We’ve published a 10-year plan for tackling drug- and alcohol-related harms and are investing an extra £532m between 2022 and 2025 to create places for 50,000 people in drug and alcohol treatment services. We are also funding specialist alcohol care teams at one in four hospitals in England, based on those with the greatest need.

“Our 10-year women’s health strategy sets out our plan for improving care and support for women.”

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