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Women and Alcohol

Alcohol is the leading cause of death for women ages 15-24 in the developed world. While this fact also applies to men, women actually appear to face greater risks. We wonder: Why are public health officials increasingly concerned about women’s alcohol consumption?

A. Women do more binge consumption than in the past
B. Women’s bodies deal differently with alcohol than men’s
C. Women face differing long-term health-risks than men
D. All of the above

A. Women do more binge consumption than in the past … is correct.

Binge-drinking grew much faster among U.S. women than the national average from 2005 to 2012 and continues to rise. As a rule of thumb, consuming four drinks in a period of less than two hours is usually considered binge-drinking among women, whereas for men the threshold is five.

Binge-drinking is defined as an excessive level of alcohol consumption in a short time period that brings blood alcohol concentration to at least 0.08 percent grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood (equal, in some countries, to 0.08 permille grams of alcohol per liter or gram of blood). It is not necessarily tied to alcohol dependency.

Data available for the United States show that one in eight women – and nearly one in five women ages 18-44 – binge-drink. The average number of drinks consumed by women while binge-drinking is five.

Binge-drinking is even more pronounced in the United Kingdom, where it is particularly high among highly-educated British women, according to the OECD.

Female binge-drinking and alcohol addiction is far more rampant in Russia than in the United States or the United Kingdom, but that is also true of Russian men, and likely stems from other social factors.

One of the key factors explaining the increase in binge-drinking among U.S. and UK women, particularly younger women, is keeping up with the consumption of men around them, who have a higher average tolerance for alcohol.

In the United States, excessive social drinking by women is even promoted as progress in equal rights – in the same way tobacco companies once tried to encourage women to start smoking like men.

Alcohol companies are extremely reluctant to curb binge-drinking because more than half of all drinks consumed in the United States are consumed during binge-drinking.

In 2010, the total cost of binge-drinking from lost productivity, crime, health care costs and more was estimated to be $191 billion in the United States alone.

B. Women’s bodies deal differently with alcohol than men’s … is correct.

While women have many different body types, the average woman faces a greater risk for adverse effects from consuming alcohol than the average man, even if in smaller volumes. This is largely due to physical differences.

Women on average have a smaller body size, which means that a given amount of alcohol has less mass or volume to distribute into. In addition, women also have a lower percentage of water in the body and a higher percentage of body fat. All of these factors result in faster intoxication and more difficulty processing alcohol through the body. That, in turn, increases all associated risks from unsafe drinking.

Heavy alcohol consumption rates have historically been much more prevalent among men than among women. (Even today in the U.S. case, slightly fewer than half of all women reported drinking even once in the prior 30 days.)

C. Women face differing long-term health-risks from men … is correct.

While alcohol’s dangers during pregnancy have been known for some time, there are other long-term health risks from excessive alcohol consumption that affect women specifically.

Most notably, while many women take steps to avoid drinking while pregnant, there is growing evidence that excessive drinking many years earlier can affect maternal health and pregnancy. This applies even if women have stopped abusing alcohol long before trying to become pregnant. It may even cause infertility, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other long-term risks with a disproportionate impact on women compared to men include liver disease, brain damage, heart damage and cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon and breast. Breast cancer, in fact, likely has a linear relationship to alcohol consumption.

Many of these gendered effects have actually been known to researchers for decades from studies of relative outlier very heavy drinkers, but concern has increased as binge-drinking grows among women and particularly among young women.

D. All of the above … is correct.

Public health officials in the United States are also working against a changing tide in alcohol marketing – a $2 billion business annually. Strategies include suggesting it is fun, glamorous or relaxing to drink it in excessive quantities, including outside of social situations.

The World Health Organization calls for establishing and empowering independent agencies to regulate and sanction alcohol marketing. Best practices include regulating alcohol marketing by limiting the content and volume of ads, banning it from certain media, limiting sponsorship deals, banning youth-aimed ads and restricting social media promotion.

The United States primarily relies upon self-policing and industry-set standards for the regulation of alcohol marketing.

This stands in contrast to the United Kingdom, which implemented some of the strictest – and most heavily enforced – marketing rules in the world in an effort to curb binge-drinking among minors regardless of gender.

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