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 consumption.
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.
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 Europe.
“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.