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Drinking: Alcohol’s Effect on Girls

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Gender Equality

Young women are catching up with their male counterparts when it comes to alcohol—often to disastrous effect.



April 25, 2006 – Lauren Kennedy was only 9 years old when she snuck her first sip of her dad’s whiskey. At 12, she started drinking margaritas with friends. Two years later, she drank so much hard alcohol at a friend’s house that she passed out. Despite the blackout, Kennedy, now 21, says she loved the feeling of being drunk. “It made me forget all my worries,” she says. But her drinking also led to more worries for her family. After a lifetime on the honor roll, Kennedy says she “stopped caring about school.” She got her first D her sophomore year of high school, dropped out a year later and started experimenting with marijuana and even crystal methamphetamine. “Every time I did [the drugs], I was under the influence of alcohol,” she says. “I never thought I’d actually get addicted to them.” But she did. Kennedy’s been sober now for two years, but only after spending more than a month at the Betty Ford Center at age 19 to treat her alcohol and drug addiction.

Not every young woman who picks up a bottle will end up addicted to alcohol or illicit drugs. But researchers know that alcohol can disproportionately affect young women compared to their male counterparts—sometimes to devastating effect. “The impact of one drink on a girl is roughly equivalent to the impact of two drinks on a boy, so girls who are keeping up with the boys are actually subjecting themselves to far worse consequences,” says Susan Foster, director of policy research for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Yet researchers like Foster have also noted a disturbing trend. Despite the health risks, a growing number of girls are reaching for the bottle. “They don’t see themselves as being at higher risk than males, but they are,” says psychologist G. Alan Marlatt, director of the addictive behaviors research center at the University of Washington. “They don’t get that if they’re trying to keep up with their boyfriend, they’re going to get drunk faster. The genders are catching up with each other, the girls with the guys, which isn’t good in this case because of the added risks.”

Even in their 20s, women who chronically abuse alcohol can get serious liver disease and gastrointestinal problems like ulcers. They can also suffer from malnourishment because they’re getting most of their calories from alcohol, not food. And they are more likely to engage in risky, unprotected sex and to perform poorly in school. Researchers are also investigating whether adolescent girls who drink too much may experience delayed onset of puberty, hurt their chances of getting pregnant later and even cause long-lasting changes to their brains. They already know that women are more likely than men to develop liver inflammation and to die from cirrhosis (a condition caused by chronic liver disease that has been linked to extensive alcohol use). The USDA’s dietary guidelines say anything more than one drink a day for women can increase the risk of a range of health problems, from injuries sustained in alcohol-related accidents to high blood pressure, stroke, suicide and even breast cancer.

In its February 2006 report “Girls and Drugs,” the Office of National Drug Control Policy says that in 2004, 1.5 million teen girls (versus 1.3 million teen boys) started using alcohol. By ninth grade, 66.2 percent of girls say they have already had at least one drink, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey. Among ninth-grade girls, 38.5 percent say they had drunk in the 30 days before the survey—and 20.9 percent says they had more than five drinks in a row in the 30 days before the survey. In a separate study of 1,600 women by psychologist Sharon Wilsnack, a professor in the department of neuroscience at the University of North Dakota, the percentage of 21- to 30-year-olds who report being intoxicated in the past 12 months increased from 48 percent in 1981 to 63 percent in 2001. “Some women may be drinking more deliberately to get drunk,” she says.

College can be a particularly dangerous time, as Ashley Stanley knows. Now 27, she devoted her high school years to playing soccer, not to drinking. But after a college knee injury ended her career as a goalkeeper, she found herself drinking with friends more often. Almost immediately, she got drunk and blacked out. “Whenever I used, I drank alcoholically,” she says. And alcohol lowered her inhibitions and led her to start experimenting with marijuana, mushrooms, LSD and cocaine. Finally, at 21, she told her father she needed help and went through treatment at the Hazelden Foundation in Center City, Minn., for the first time. After a relapse, she checked back into the center six months later, and then into a Hazelden halfway house. This time, it worked. She just finished college. “I felt pressured to be popular, look pretty and feel confident, and I could only experience those things through drinking,” she says.

Nancy Waite-O’Brien, vice president of clinical services at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., points out that college is often the first time away from home for many girls, and they no longer have the 24-hour supervision that parents provide. “There are new people you might want to try to impress. You may be separated from your old support system.” And peer pressure looms large. Researchers say women often use alcohol to improve their mood, increase their confidence, reduce tension and feel less shy. “Alcohol is a social lubricant,” says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Girls may drink because it makes them less shy around boys—and because they want to seem older than they are. They may even look up to partying celebrities, like Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton. When girls see celebrities partying, “it definitely increases the appeal,” says Kim Miller of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “There is a gross neglect of messages to counter it.”

Critics also worry that marketers are fueling the trends by targeting younger women with “alcopops”—the nickname for flavored, colored alcoholic beverages like Skyy Blue and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. (Alcohol industry officials deny marketing to underage drinkers.)”You can drink more because it doesn’t taste bad,” says Waite-O’Brien. A Teenage Research Unlimited Survey for the American Medical Association (AMA) found that a third of teen girls had tried alcopops (compared to a fifth of boys), and more than one in six teen girls drank them at least every six months. The AMA argues that these “starter drinks” are created to appeal to teen girls and young women. “We think those advertisements, even though they deny it, are directed toward their future customers,” says Dr. J. Edward Hill, president of the AMA.

Many colleges are taking steps to reverse the trends and discourage students from drinking, by restricting beer at football games and “trying to create a lot of opportunities to have a lot of fun without alcohol,” says Yale University psychology professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. For example, the AMA and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are working with 10 universities to reduce high-risk drinking through activities like so-called alternative spring breaks that encourage building homes through Habitat through Humanity rather than traveling to beach bacchanals. “[But universities] aren’t parents, they don’t have that authority. They don’t want to get into the position of policing parties.” And college girls are susceptible to what Nolen-Hoeksema calls “the toxic triangle—this interplay between depression, alcohol and binge eating.” Any one of them is a risk for developing the others. Young women often sort of bounce around with all three.”

Researchers say parents still play the biggest role. They need to tell their girls—when they’re still tiny—why alcohol and drugs can be dangerous. (Parents can find advice on talking to their kids at To kids, who care about appearance, talking about the toll that alcohol and cigarettes take on appearance may be even more important than talking about far-off lung cancer, says NIDA’s Volkow. Parents also need to teach their young girls “refusal skills” and come up with alternate social interactions, such as a sports activity or a movie, “where chemicals aren’t involved,” says psychologist Sue Hoisington, executive director of Hazelden’s Mental Health Centers in Minnesota.

“I wondered how my life could ever be fun without being drunk or without being high,” remembers Stanley, but she adds: “My life is 10 times better without it.”

Medical information within this site is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of any health condition. Please consult a licensed health care professional for the treatment or diagnosis of any medical condition.

Taken with permission from


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