Female alcohol abuse is a ‘global epidemic’

  • Post category:World News

ALCOHOL abuse is rising in much of the developed world – and in many countries, female drinkers are driving that growth.

From the Courier Mail

This is global: the richer the country, the fewer abstainers and the smaller the gap between male and female consumption.

The alcohol industry, well aware of this reality, is now battling for our downtime -and our brand loyalty. Wines with names like Girls’ Night Out, MommyJuice, Mommy’s Time Out, Cupcake and, yes, Happy Bitch, plus berry-flavored vodkas, Skinnygirl Vodka, mango coolers, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, all are aimed at us.

I came of age in the ’70s, a heady time for women in North America. Smack-dab in the middle of second-wave feminism, my baby-boom peers and I headed off to university in our miniskirts and tie-dyed T-shirts, assured by Gloria Steinem and a host of others that the world was ours for the taking. We could, in Steinem’s words, “grow up to be the men we wanted to marry.”

I became an award-winning magazine writer, got married and had a son. I created my own opportunities.

My husband and I separated when our son was 5, but we continued to share all daily duties, and all of the pleasures, too.

Always, there were trade-offs. I didn’t write my column as often as I should have, in those years when my son was at home. Most nights I got home late: Too often, I was trundling in with groceries after 7 o’clock, cooking fast for a hungry boy. And somewhere along the line, I would surprise myself by drinking too much, using alcohol as a shock absorber.

For me, all the juggling took its toll. Certain disappointments at work were bruising. Menopause hit and anxiety and depression reared their ugly heads. Somewhere along the line, my occasional evenings of drinking too much morphed into drinking on an almost nightly basis.

When my son left for university, when the marathon was over and the house was empty, I was lonely. It was then that my evening glass of wine turned into two or three, which eventually became three or four.

On this, I am not alone.

Preeminent American alcohol researcher Sharon Wilsnack, of the University of North Dakota, believes we are now witnessing a “global epidemic” in women’s drinking. In 2011, Katherine Keyes, now an assistant professor at Columbia University, reviewed 31 international studies of birth-cohort and gender differences in alcohol consumption and mortality. Her conclusion? Those born after the Second World War are more likely to binge drink and develop alcohol-use disorders than their older counterparts.

“Those born between 1978 and 1983 are the weekend warriors, drinking to black out,” Keyes says. “In that age group, there is a reduction in male drinking, and a sharp increase for women.”

Meanwhile, women who are in their 40s and 50s have a very high risk in terms of heavy drinking and weekly drinking. “We’re not saying, ‘Put down the sherry and go back to the kitchen,’ ” says Keyes. “But when we see these steep increases, you wonder if we are going to see a larger burden of disease for women.”

Witness the rise in alcohol marketing, the feminisation of the drinking culture. Women need a break. They feel they deserve a break. And if drinking is about escape, it is also about entitlement and empowerment. Says Keyes: “Those in high-status occupations, working in male-dominated environments, have an increased risk of alcohol-use disorders.”

In fact, the one protective factor for women is what Keyes calls “low-status occupations.”

Women with a university degree are almost twice as likely to drink daily as those without. “I ask myself every day if I’m an alcoholic,” says one rising corporate star. “I’m 32, and I drink every night. All my friends drink every night. We haven’t had our kids yet, and we all drink the same way we did in university.”

Says Katherine Brown, director of policy at Britain’s Institute of Alcohol Studies: “Young professional women drink a lot more than women in manual and routine jobs -what you call blue collar. Is it marketing, keeping up with the machismo, children?”

Brown believes that a crucial driver is the norms of the university years. “It’s an alcohol-soaked environment,” she says. “At the university I went to -Exeter -Carlsberg was a sponsor of events held on campus. The focus was on getting really, really drunk and the most horrendous things used to happen. All social events revolved around drinking, and acting the fool was celebrated. Now, it’s the ‘done’ thing for a city woman to come home after a stressful day and open a bottle of wine. Is it the ‘Sex and the City’ generation? Who knows. Nobody questions it.”

“Are the girls trying to keep up with the boys?” asks Edith Sullivan, a researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “Quantity and frequency can be a killer for novice drinkers. Adding alcohol to the mix of the developing brain will likely complicate the normal developmental trajectory. Long after a young person recovers from a hangover, risk to cognitive and brain functions endures.”

Sullivan, who has done a lot of work with the brain structure of alcoholics, is certain that what is known as “telescoping” is real: “As they develop alcoholism, women seem to develop dependence sooner than men. Drink for drink, it is worse for females.”

“It is the issue affecting girls’ health -and it’s going sideways, especially for those 13 to 15.” This is the voice of Nancy Poole, director of research and knowledge translation at the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health. “And the saddest thing,” says Poole, “is alcohol is being marketed as girls’ liberation.”

Surely, this wasn’t what Gloria Steinem had in mind.