‘Finger pointing at women doesn’t work’: Exposing the perils of wine o’clock

Talking points

  • As little as .6 to 1.25 standard drinks a day could raise women’s risk of breast cancer, but only one in five women is aware of the link.
  • Even “very light consumption levels” of alcohol can raise breast cancer risk by 23 per cent.
  • Nearly all women asked in a trial at a breast screening clinic if they would like a short iPad presentation on drinking and breast cancer said yes.
  • Women’s social class plays a role in their alcohol use.

Belinda Lunnay knows better than most how deep the “relationship” is between Australian women in their 40s and 50s and the wine many of them use to get by.

She has long studied how women managing huge loads at work and home use wine as “a self-care tool and a stand-in support” that feels like a friend; a bond that strengthened while many shouldered extra lockdown work with kids.

Kathryn Elliott is big on a healthy diet and exercise, but until recently “had no off-button” with alcohol.Credit:Paul Jeffers

But it wasn’t until Dr Lunnay quickly amassed 200,000 hits on research titled ‘Oh well, wine o’clock – what mid-life women told us about drinking and why it’s so hard to stop’ that she realised scolding women who drink at high-risk levels would not get the health message across, including that it raises their breast-cancer risk.

“I had so many people reach out and say ‘thank you’ for presenting us in a light that recognises the complexity,” says Lunnay, whose studies of gender, class and alcohol at South Australia’s Torrens University are funded by the Australian Research Council.

“Heaps said, ‘finally someone who realises finger pointing doesn’t work and makes women feel worse’.”

Saturated in wine-mum memes – customised for the pandemic – and served wine everywhere from “paint and sip” nights to school events, midlife women may even take health warnings with “a pinch of salt”, according to research Lunnay and public health professor Paul Ward published last week.

Factors from just getting by under stress, to “feeling like they’re not authentically doing the juggle as hard as other women unless you need a drink to knock off”, or seeing celebrities including Kylie Minogue marketing her own range of pink wines may outweigh messages about guidelines to have no more than 10 drinks a week.

“People rely on a bit of gut instinct and try to work out their own personal risk factor [for breast-cancer],” she said.

Even social class influences women’s drinking.

Affluent women told the researchers that drinking was part of socialising and networking, middle-class women said they use it at home to “manage the juggle”, and lower-income women say they do not have the ability to “choose” to cut back on their drinking, as it gets them through.

Aussie music royalty and breast-cancer survivor, Kylie Minogue markets a popular range of pink wines, prosecco and spirits.Credit:Getty

Though up to one in 10 cases of breast cancer is linked to drinking, researchers say many women do not know this, and the message competes with the reality of their lives.

“There are so many conflicting sources of information … the industry pink-washes drinks, and Kylie Minogue is known as being a breast cancer survivor – and that’s a big totem for Australian women – yet she’s got her own wine product,” said Lunnay. “Those messages confuse women.”

Kylie Minogue Wines signature Prosecco.

A spokesman for Kylie Minogue Wines said the brand supports the UK alcohol harm-reduction charity Drink Aware, the bottles carry labels saying “please drink responsibly”, and the products are not specifically targeted towards women.

Kathryn Elliott, a mother of three and breast cancer survivor who trained as an alcohol mindset coach after quitting drinking, feels regular binge-drinking over three decades may have contributed to her illness by affecting oestrogen levels in her body.

Despite being careful with diet and exercise, shortly before her diagnosis Elliott realised she needed to cut drinking after downing “four or five cocktails quickly in a row” on a family holiday and then falling and hitting her head, worrying her children.

“I was stuck in this idea I would be able to moderate my drinking, and that I had to find a sweet spot in moderation, but I couldn’t find it, unfortunately.

“As a binge drinker with no off-switch, moderation is a really tricky and difficult place to be. Because when you’re having one or two, you want more,” says Elliott.

She made a video for a new breast-cancer awareness campaign by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), in which she says she previously had no idea of the link between drinking and breast cancer risk.

Research previewed last week by Monash Health and Turning Point echoed Cancer Council data showing Elliott is in the majority: only around one in five women is aware of the link between breast cancer and alcohol.

But 97 per cent of clients at a breast-screening service who were asked in a trial by Dr Jasmine Grigg’s Monash team if they would like to read brief information on the alcohol and breast cancer said ‘yes’.

Grigg said while drinking in Australia had declined steadily in the past 10 years, it had remained stable in women over 40, and increased among women aged 50 to 69.

But two large studies show as little as 1.25 standard drinks a day (well below the average “restaurant pour”) could increase cancer risk by 23 per cent.

“The latter study showed as little as 0.6 of a standard drink a day can increase risk, [breast cancer] is the only cancer associated with very light consumption levels,” said Grigg.

Yet alcohol is ingrained in women’s lives: “We drink when we’re stressed out, when we’re sad, when we’re celebrating, when we’re happy, there are many reasons, it’s such a massive part of social life as well.“

Alcohol, gender and class researcher, Dr Belinda Lunnay found women’s life circumstances and class had a big influence on their drinking.

Professor Dan Lubman, of Turning Point and the Eastern Health Clinical School, said the alcohol industry was targeting women and this, plus a “very sophisticated normalisation among women of drinking in any setting at any time or group gathering … everywhere from the cinema to a haircut or primary school function” meant there were “increasing harms in this group”.

One reason for this could be that “the only messages women receive” about alcohol are that it is a way to cope, relax and wind down, according to FARE chief executive, Caterina Giorgi, when the evidence showed it “actually contributes to stress and anxiety” and is linked to about 1000 cases of breast cancer in Australia a year.

When COVID hit, “we saw examples of alcohol companies overnight saying ‘the way to get through COVID and deal with stress is to drink more’, and we saw targeting of those messages to women,” Giorgi said.

“Some even referenced the way to get through homeschooling is to drink more; if we had proper regulation of marketing, those claims wouldn’t be allowed.”

More information on alcohol and breast cancer can be found at the Cancer Council the Alcohol and Drug Foundation or FARE.

For free and confidential advice about alcohol and other drug treatment services call the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015. Access free 24/7 drug and alcohol counselling online at www.counsellingonline.org

Most Viewed in National

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article