When women flourish societies flourish. But harm caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry stands in the way of women’s physical and mental well-being.
For almost a century, the gender gap between men’s and women’s alcohol use has been decreasing. What used to be a 3:1 ratio for high risk alcohol use among men vs. women is now closer to a 1:1 ratio.
The latest data from the 2019 National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHASA) clearly illustrate the troubling trend.
Women in their teens and early 20s reported alcohol use and getting alcohol intoxicated at higher rates than their male peers – in some cases for the first time since researchers began measuring such behavior.
- For the first time, in 2019, a higher percentage of 12th grade girls reported being intoxicated in the past month than boys.
- In 2018, for the first time in nearly two decades, a greater percentage of women ages 18 to 25 reported using alcohol in the previous month than their male peers.
Women’s bodies react differently to alcohol
This is especially problematic because women’s bodies react differently to alcohol. Women have less body water which dissolves alcohol compared to men with the same body weight. Women also have fewer enzymes that break down alcohol before it enters the blood stream. Therefore, the same number of alcohol units leads to higher concentrations of alcohol in the female body. And alcohol stays longer in women’s bodies. This exposes their organs and tissues to more alcohol for a longer time period per unit of alcohol consumed.
From less years of alcohol use, women are getting sicker faster,” said Dawn Sugarman, a research psychologist at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts who studies addiction in women, as per KHN.Dr. Dawn Sugarman, research psychologist, McLean Hospital, Massachusetts
And physical alcohol harm is not even the only problem. Women are prone to higher mental health harm due to alcohol as well. They are more likely to use alcohol as a coping tool. Using alcohol to cope increases the risks of developing an alcohol use disorder.
Women are also more likely to experience childhood abuse or sexual assault than men. Recent studies have found rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicide are rising among teenaged and young adult women. This could drive higher alcohol use among women, fueling the vicious cycle of mental ill-health and alcohol use, according to Aaron White, a senior scientific adviser at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The pandemic has made the situation even worse for women. Several studies found women were more likely to report rises in alcohol use during COVID-19, especially if they experienced increased stress.
It’s not only that we’re seeing women [having] more [alcohol], but that they’re really being affected by this physically and mental health-wise,” said Dawn Sugarman, a research psychologist at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts who studies addiction in women, as per KHN.Dr. Dawn Sugarman, research psychologist, McLean Hospital, Massachusetts
The National Institute of Drug Abuse in the U.S. have highlighted the specific harms alcohol and other substances cause women. The list includes:
- Women can get addicted to harmful substances from using smaller amounts and in shorter time than men;
- Women may have more cravings for harmful substances and are more likely to relapse after treatment;
- Women may experience more physical effects of harmful substances, such as on the heart and blood vessels; and
- Women are more likely to go to the emergency room or die from overdose or other effects of certain harmful substances.
Consequences of increased women’s alcohol use
The dire consequences of the increase in women’s alcohol use have started to show in the U.S.
- One study found alcohol-related visits to the emergency room from 2006 to 2014 increased 70% for women, compared with 58% for men.
- Another paper reported that the rate of alcohol-related cirrhosis rose 50% for women, versus 30% for men, from 2009 to 2015.
- The alcohol related death rate among women is increasing faster than for men. One study published in JAMA Network found, between 2000 to 2016, alcohol-induced deaths among women increased between 3.1% and 3.6% a year, about 3 times that of men. Another study done by researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found women’s alcohol-related death rate increased by 85% compared to a 35% increase among men.
Big Alcohol targets women
Despite alcohol causing very specific harms to women, such as the fact that women can get addicted to substances with smaller amounts and in shorter time than men, the alcohol industry continues to aggressively push their products on women.
Big Alcohol uses various strategies to get more women to use alcohol, such as:
- Pink-washing of alcohol,
- Marketing alcohol with other products such as makeup,
- Promoting “low calorie” alcohol as better for women, and
- Marketing alcohol as a gender equalizer by aligning with women empowerment.
One recent example of Big Alcohol exploiting women empowerment is a highly contradictory campaign by Absolut Vodka. Absolut has been objectifying women in their advertising for years, before suddenly launching this one time campaign on sexual consent.
Urgent action needed to protect women’s health and rights from Big Alcohol
There are cost-effective policy solutions to prevent and reduce alcohol harm and protect women. The alcohol policy ‘best buys’ – increasing alcohol taxes, banning alcohol ads, and reducing alcohol availability – have significant impact on improving equity.
In an article on the Maverick Citizen, Kristina Sperkova, President of Movendi International stresses alcohol policy should be prioritized considering the significant impacts on the health, well-being and equality of women and girls and that both the women’s rights movement and the global health community should start paying greater attention to alcohol prevention and control.
Today, it is time we broaden the movement, follow the evidence and overcome structural obstacles to win the battles of our time,” writes Kristina Sperkova, President of Movendi International, as per Maverick Citizen.Kristina Sperkova, President, Movendi International
The Bemidji Pioneer: “Women now drink as much as men — and are prone to sickness sooner“
KHN: “Women Now Drink as Much as Men — And Are Prone to Sickness Sooner“