Troubling new findings in the US indicate that the rate at which alcohol deaths in women is climbing is higher than ever. Researchers found the alarming trend after tracking data from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention for over 20 years.
The specific deaths due to alcohol the researchers counted for their study include alcohol poisoning, gastritis, liver diseases, and others. It is important to note that the researchers did not include unintentional injuries and homicides due to alcohol use.
The steep incline in the alcohol deaths trend clearly reflects how US women face growing alcohol harm as alcohol deaths rise in the nation.
The steepest increase in alcohol-related mortality in women was seen in just the last three years. The mortality trend in women over the period analysed can be summarised as follows.
- 1999 – 2007: Death rates due to alcohol in women rose steadily by about 1% per year.
- 2007 – 2018: The death rate due to alcohol increased to about 4.3% per year.
- 2018 – 2020: The death rate due to alcohol increased to about 14.7% per year in women, compared to 12.5% in men.
These findings remained true even when data related to the first pandemic year (2020) was excluded.
Already in 2021, Movendi International reported about the harmful trend of rising alcohol use among US women.
Alcohol use among women in the United States (U.S.) had caught up to the level of men’s alcohol consumption. This trend – deliberately driven by alcohol companies – is leading to severe consequences in terms of alcohol harm in women. Women’s bodies process alcohol differently than men making women more susceptible to organ damage and diseases caused by alcohol. Since women are also more prone to using alcohol to cope, it affects their mental health more negatively.
What the experts are saying
Even if [people] have been a consistent [alcohol users] throughout [their] life, scaling back now can help to reduce risk,” said Johannes Thrul, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, as per New York Times reporting.
In the short term, [people] are lowering the chance of injuring [themselves]; over time, [people] lessen the potential for chronic health issues associated with alcohol use”Johannes Thrul, associate professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Dr. Ibraheem Karaye, an assistant professor of population health at Hofstra University and the lead author of the study agreed, according to New York Times reporting:
Johannes Thrul, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health added, as per New York Times:
Really, low-risk [alcohol use] is not [consuming alcohol] at all,” Dr. Thrul said.
This is something that society is just starting to understand.”Johannes Thrul, associate professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Why are women consuming more alcohol?
The study does not address the reasons why alcohol deaths in women are rising. But in a conversation with the New York Times, Dr. Karaye offered a few potential reasons:
- Rates of alcohol use are growing among women.
- Alcohol affects women differently #1: Women’s bodies tend to have less fluid to dilute alcohol compared with men’s bodies, which results in higher blood-alcohol concentrations and may make women more vulnerable to health complications.
- Alcohol affects women differently #2: Women’s bodies possess lower concentrations of the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme.
- This enzyme is responsible for metabolising alcohol in in the female body. Lower concentrations of the enzyme means that the female body responds differently to alcohol than the male body, making them more vulnerable to alcohol harm.
- Women are also at higher risk for depression and anxiety, according George F. Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
- Women might be turning to alcohol to cope, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Older women are also particularly prone to experiencing feelings of loneliness as they often outlive their partners.
- The higher mortality rates among older women may also stem from the accumulated toll that alcohol takes throughout the course of a person’s life, according to Dr. Karaye.
- Women over 65 may not be consuming more alcohol than their younger counterparts, but suffering the health effects of decades of chronic alcohol use.
Women are [consuming] more [alcohol], engaging in more high-risk [alcohol use], and increasingly developing alcohol use disorder. However, we know very little about the trends in alcohol-related deaths,” said study lead author Ibraheem M. Karaye, MD, DrPH, assistant professor of population health, and director of the health science program at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY, as per WebMD.Ibraheem M. Karaye, MD, DrPH, Assistant Professor of Population Health and Director of the Health Science Program, Hofstra University
That the sex gap related to alcohol use and its effects is narrowing is not a new finding. This new study does not adequately capture the reasons behind the trend because it is a descriptive study illustrating time series trends.
A major reason for rising alcohol use, harm, and death among US women is the products and practices of alcohol companies. Big Alcohol has switched marketing strategies from objectifying and sexualizing women in their marketing to targeting women.
The role of feminized alcohol advertising in growing alcohol use and harm among women
During the pandemic, alcohol companies targeted women deliberately with messages promoting alcohol products as tools to cope with pandemic stress and anxiety.
According to a RAND Corporation study, during COVID-19 days of heavy alcohol use in women rose by 41% compared to pre-pandemic times.
Additional research has shown that the psychological stress related to COVID-19 was linked with more alcohol use in women, but in men.
The alcohol industry strategy succeeded – with devastating consequences for women.
Big Alcohol is preying on the difficulties parents and especially women are facing during COVID-19 to push more alcohol on them via social media advertising. University of Queensland researchers revealed how alcohol advertisers in Australia are using social media to prey on parents and encourage alcohol use as a way to cope with the added stress during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recent survey findings illustrate that this alcohol industry marketing strategy – to establish, normalize and promote alcohol as coping tool – during the current public health crisis is seriously harmful, as they are attempting to exploit vulnerable people and communities.
Similar to the developments in the United States, alcohol companies have also been exposed in Australia for their deliberate marketing strategy to target women during COVID-19. This led to more women consuming alcohol during the pandemic.
Studies reveal that alcohol marketing messaging today presents alcohol as an expression of femininity. Alcohol industry marketing messages also attempt to represent alcohol as an important part of performing a combination of traditional, post-feminist, and feminist femininity.
But these claims by Big Alcohol companies of a commitment to equality are at odds with the harms their products and practices cause to women and girls.
Pushing alcohol on women by exploiting the feminist agenda and values of female empowerment, gender equality, and women’s rights fuels the widening of health and social inequalities – as can be seen by the growing alcohol harm among women in the US.
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.
Misrepresenting alcohol as ‘feminism’
Alcohol brand marketing pushes alcohol on women through both perpetuating and challenging gender stereotypes. Alcohol brand marketing presents women’s alcohol use as a feminine practice. It is represented as an important component of ‘doing’ a combination of traditional, post-feminist and feminist femininities.
Alcohol companies present alcohol use by women as an important aspect of ‘having it all’ – including slimness, grooming, fashionable clothing and accessories, meaningful friendships and the successful management of women’s multiple social roles (i.e. friend, mother, worker).
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.
Big Alcohol specifically targeted women during COVID-19 in Australia. This led to more women consuming alcohol during the pandemic. These strategies are highly unethical specially during a pandemic considering that alcohol is known to weaken the immune system. It would only make people more susceptible to COVID-19 and its complications…
Minority Communities at Risk of Increased Alcohol Harm
The research found that more than 605,000 deaths are due to alcohol over the 20 year period analyzed. Overall, it found that men were still three times more likely to die due to alcohol than women. However, as explained above, this gap is closing at an alarming rate.
Interestingly, the study also captured the vulnerability of minority communities towards alcohol harm.
The study found, for example, that the annual increase in alcohol deaths among Alaska Native women was 22%. This is a significant difference from the 14.7% overall annual increase among women the country.
The difference also points to a clear social justice dimension of alcohol harm that needs greater scrutiny and political attention..
Deteriorating mental health: the unseen side of alcohol harm
Stress and stress-related disorders could also be a key factor that influences alcohol consumption in women.
There’s an interaction with mental health that has been more exposed during the pandemic,” George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told CNN.
Women are twice as likely as men to experience anxiety and depression, and the stresses of the pandemic likely hit extra hard.”George F. Koob, Director, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
The need for proper mental healthcare
A 2022 survey also found that 43% of US adults who needed substance use or mental healthcare did not receive the care they needed. This survey was carried throughout a 12 month period.
Effective treatment does exist for substance use disorders. Nevertheless, treatment coverage for is very low. According to the present study, approved treatments have only largely been tested in men. Women clearly remain in a blind spot for advocacy and research when it comes to alcohol harm prevention.
A report presented by the Pan American Health Organisation in June this year details the mental health conditions in the Americas.
The report also analyses how the situation is further exacerbated due to the fall out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most importantly, the report highlights the role played by alcohol in heightening the current mental health crisis in the region.
The landmark PAHO report explores a series of alcohol policy improvements across the region. These seek to improve mental health and the lives of people across.
Limiting alcohol availability and affordability is an effective solution to reduce suicide deaths and improve other mental health outcomes, including in women.
New York Times: “Alcohol-Related Deaths Are Rising Among Women“
Movendi International – “US: Alcohol Deaths Rising Faster Among Women Than Men“
National Geographic – “Alcohol Is Killing More Women Than Ever Before“