Women Now Drink Just as Much as Men, Why is This?
Newly published research suggests that, probably for the first time in our history, women are now consuming just as much alcohol as men are. This revelation prompts the question: “Why and how did this happen?” But even more important than the isolation of the root cause of the uptick in women’s alcohol consumption is the focus on effective prevention and treatment for the female drinker.
According to new research, women have been closing the gender gap in alcohol consumption, binge drinking, and alcohol addiction for the last century. There used to be a 3 to 1 ratio in risky drinking habits in men versus women. That ratio is now very close to 1 to 1. And not only is this the case for adults, but it is also true for young people and minors. In fact, 2019 was the first year on record in which underage girls reported being drunk more often than underage boys did.
It’s worth mentioning that this trend isn’t just occurring in the United States. It’s happening globally. A group of researchers published their findings on this subject in the British Medical Journal. Quoting the researchers, “There was a linear decrease over time in the sex ratio for all 3 categories of alcohol use and related harms. Among those born in the early 1900s, males were 2.2 times more likely than females to consume alcohol, 3.0 times more likely to drink alcohol in ways suggestive of problematic use, and 3.6 times more likely to experience alcohol-related harms. Among cohorts born in the late 1900s, males were 1.1 times more likely than females to consume alcohol, 1.2 times more likely to drink alcohol in ways suggestive of problematic use, and 1.3 times more likely to experience alcohol-related harms.” In summary, men used to be three times as likely to abuse alcohol than women. Now, the difference is barely noticeable.
These findings are especially concerning because women generally have a lower tolerance of alcohol than men do, and therefore suffer the health consequences of alcohol consumption (liver disease, heart disease, cancer, etc.) more quickly than men do. From Dr. Dawn Sugarman, who specializes in addiction among women, “It’s not only that we’re seeing women drinking more, but that they’re really being affected by this physically and mental health-wise.” Dr. Sugarman also says that, though women are consuming more alcohol than perhaps ever before, the awareness of the need to treat alcohol addiction in women has not risen to meet the new rates of misuse among this demographic.
That is to say that even though women are likely to drink more than in previous years, they’re less likely to get the help they need than men are. American society is not yet aware of the female drinking problem.
Why is This?
There is no simple explanation why women are drinking more alcohol than in previous years and decades. Instead, there is a long list of probable reasons why alcohol consumption is rising among women. For example, some research has found that women are more prone to use alcohol as a coping mechanism than men are. From one group of researchers, “Rates of alcohol use disorder (AUD) have increased in women by 84% over the past ten years relative to a 35% increase in men. This substantive increase in female drinking is alarming given that women experience greater alcohol-related health consequences compared to men. Stress is strongly associated with all phases of alcohol addiction, including drinking initiation, maintenance, and relapse for both women and men, but plays an especially critical role for women.”
Similar to stress and coping, women are more likely to experience childhood abuse and sexual assault than men are - both are predictors for alcohol addiction later in life. Furthermore, the effects of Covid-19 may be playing a role in adding stress, isolation, and trauma, all of which could lead to an uptick in alcohol abuse.
In summary, there are several possible reasons why alcohol consumption has gone up among women.
As touched on earlier, it is concerning that alcohol misuse rates with women have climbed because women are more easily harmed from and with less alcohol than men do. Some researchers suggest this is because women generally have less body water content than men do – body water dissolves alcohol. That means more alcohol goes into the bloodstream and organs of women than of men.
The result? Women are at greater risk for harmful effects of alcohol misuse, like hangovers, blackouts, liver disease, alcohol-induced cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers, alcohol poisoning, and alcohol addiction. To that point, one study found that alcohol-related visits to the emergency room from 2006 to 2014 increased by 70% for women, compared to a 58% increase for men. Another paper found that the rate of alcohol-related cirrhosis rose by 50% for women, compared to just 30% for men, between 2009 and 2015.
A change in the trends surrounding the consumption of any mind-altering substance should be closely monitored and studied. In the case of alcohol, one of the leading causes of preventable death in America, increased consumption among women should be a cause for alarm and merits a significant public health response.
“Knowledge of the unique risks that alcohol poses for women—including an increased likelihood of memory blackouts and hangovers and a faster progression of liver disease and AUD (alcohol addiction)—makes recent increases in alcohol use by women more concerning…”
As one group of researchers with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism concluded, “Knowledge of the unique risks that alcohol poses for women—including an increased likelihood of memory blackouts and hangovers and a faster progression of liver disease and AUD (alcohol addiction)—makes recent increases in alcohol use by women more concerning. It is important to consider the unique factors that might influence alcohol use among women, and the unique direct and secondhand health effects that alcohol poses for women, when developing prevention strategies to address alcohol use and related harms.” An estimated 95,000 Americans die from alcohol-related harm each year. Families and individuals must help their loved ones seek alcohol addiction treatment, regardless of gender or age. It is a life or death matter.
The Need for Addiction Treatment
Historically, there has always been a stark disparity between male alcohol consumption and female consumption. But that is no longer the case, and it’s time to recognize that alcohol addiction is just as much a problem for American women as it is for American men.
There are many reasons why alcohol misuse has gone up among women, to the point where it is commensurate to th alcohol consumption levels for men. Understanding the causes for such a shift is vital if we use the information to prevent a continued surge in alcohol consumption among women.
But even more importantly, a closing gap in alcohol consumption levels for men and women suggests a stark need for treatment. We already know that a great deal of harm comes about due to alcohol misuse, both in women and in men. That’s why it is so crucial that those who drink alcohol to excess and can’t stop must get help.
Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC