Women are less likely to experience drug and alcohol problems than men. However, the story doesn’t end there. For International Women’s Day 2022, Natalie Davies runs through the key figures about women, drugs and alcohol.

My aim with this article is to present up-to-date, nationally-relevant or representative data about women, drugs and alcohol. I hope it will be a resource that you can ‘bookmark’ and come back to.

Bear in mind that England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales often have their own ways of collecting data and their own timescales for reporting. Also, not all of the available datasets provide a breakdown by sex or gender.

If you spot any datasets that I have missed, please email me on natalie@addiction-ssa.org.

Natalie Davies (website content manager)

Scroll down to browse the full collection, or use the links to head straight to your section of choice:

  1. National policy
  2. Illicit drug use
  3. Alcohol dependence
  4. Drug-related deaths
  5. Bacterial infections
  6. Treatment
  7. Caring responsibilities
1. National policy

When scouring key documents for recognition of women’s issues, search terms may include ‘women’, ‘female’, ‘sex’, and ‘gender’. For example, there were:

Comment: Women’s issues appear to be more prominent in clinical guidelines than government policies. However, it’s difficult to know how much to read into this. On one hand, it may mean very little; clinical guidelines go into great depth about treatment, whereas government documents typically paint with broad brush strokes about the direction for treatment. On the other hand, it may indicate that gender is not a major consideration in strategic planning, which could be a barrier to ensuring equality of treatment outcomes.

2. Illicit drug use

The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEAW) is one of the largest social research surveys in England and Wales, and its primary aim is “to produce information about the extent and nature of crime in England and Wales”. The CSEAW is also a key source for understanding the scale of illicit drug use. In the survey for the year ending March 2020:

  • 7% of women reported drug use in the past year
  • 6% of women reported using cannabis in the past year
  • 2% of women reported using powder cocaine in the past year
  • 1% of women reported having taken ecstasy in the past year

Similarly, the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey asks people about their experiences and perceptions of crime in Scotland, providing insight into the prevalence of drug use in Scotland over the 12 preceding months. In the 2018/19 and 2019/20 surveys:

  • 10% of women reported drug use
  • 5% of women reported using cannabis
  • 2% of women reported using cocaine
  • 1% of women reported having taken ecstasy

Comment: Both these crime surveys provide opportunities to gather information from a large section of the population. However, they have their limitations when used to measure illicit drug use. For example, due to the stigma and criminalisation of illicit drug use, there may be an unwillingness to report it through an official survey. Plus, as surveys are based on contact with ‘households’, we can expect the findings to under-represent (or not represent) vulnerable groups such as people who are homeless or living in insecure accommodation.

3. Alcohol dependence

Estimates of the prevalence of alcohol dependence in England were prepared for Public Health England in 2017 by the University of Sheffield and King’s College London. Based on data from 2014, these estimates indicated that:

  • 138,917 women in England were dependent on alcohol
  • the highest prevalence of alcohol dependence was among women aged 18–24 (1.4% or 33,176 women)
  • the prevalence reduced by age group from 0.8% (30,315) of women aged 25–34, to 0.7% (54,170) aged 35–54, and 0.3% (21,256) aged 55+

Comment: Men are more likely to be dependent on alcohol, but a considerable number of women are also dependent on alcohol. The most at-risk age group is women aged 18–24, with an estimated 1.4% dependent on alcohol at the time the above estimates were formed. This matched the 1.4% of the general population estimated to be dependent on alcohol at that time.

4. Drug-related deaths

The Office for National Statistics publishes figures on the number of drug-related deaths that are registered per year in England and Wales. In 2020:

  • 1,453 women died of drug-related deaths, including deaths from illicit drugs, prescription medicines, and over-the-counter medications
  • 831 women died of drug-related deaths specifically involving ‘drug misuse’ or drug dependence

For 2020, the National Records of Scotland reported that:

  • 366 women died of drug-related deaths involving illicit drugs

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency reported that in the year 2020:

  • 65 women died of drug-related deaths
  • 48 women died of ‘drug misuse’ deaths

Comment: Drug-related deaths are one one of the ‘headline’ harms among people who use illicit drugs. Other potential harms associated with drug use include blood-borne viruses and bacterial infections.

5. Bacterial infections

The Unlinked Anonymous Monitoring (UAM) survey is used to monitor the prevalence and incidence of HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and other injecting-related risks across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Between 2017 and 2019, the UAM survey found that:

  • 52% of women who inject drugs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland reported symptoms of an infection (e.g. abscess, sore or open wound)

Comment: Although women are less likely to inject drugs than men, women are at greater risk of injecting-related infections than men, which suggests that there may be more (or different) barriers to hygienic injecting for women compared with men.

6. Treatment

Between April 2019 to March 2020, adult substance misuse treatment statistics from Public Health England indicated that:

  • 31% of people in treatment were women
  • 40% of people in alcohol treatment were women
  • 27% of people in opiate treatment were women

As of 30 April 2019, the Census of Drug and Alcohol Treatment Services in Northern Ireland revealed that:

  • there were 2,273 women in treatment (34% of the total number in treatment)
  • 41% in alcohol-only treatment were women
  • 31% in drugs-only treatment were women
  • 29% in drug and alcohol treatment were women

Comment: These figures suggest that women represent a large segment of the treatment population. Interestingly, in England and Northern Ireland, women constituted a greater proportion of the alcohol treatment population than the general treatment population.

7. Caring responsibilities

Adult substance misuse treatment statistics from Public Health England covering the period April 2019 to March 2020 indicated that:

  • 58% of women starting treatment either lived with a child or were a parent when they started treatment

Comment: According to the data from Public Health England, over half of women who start treatment are in a care-giving role. There may be many more women in care-giving roles who are reluctant to access healthcare and harm reduction services because of the risk or perceived risk of them losing custody of their children, or who are unable to access treatment due to practical barriers such as a lack of childcare or transport.

by Natalie Davies

The opinions expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the SSA.

The SSA does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of the information in external sources or links and accepts no responsibility or liability for any consequences arising from the use of such information.


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