America has a alcohol problem.
But over the last decade we’ve seen a substantial increase in the number of women who are dinking, compared to a decade ago.
And the main problem, a higher percentage of those women are binge drinking.
According to The Pew Charitable Trusts and Stateline magazine, because women are more vulnerable to the damaging health effects of alcohol than men, and because drinking during pregnancy can have devastating effects on a fetus, the federal government and some states have made the growing trend a top public health priority.
According to Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “the harms associated with alcohol use in women escalate more quickly, affecting women at an earlier age than men, and the damage tends to be more severe.”
For decades, states have attempted to suppress drinking among men and women of all ages by levying alcohol excise taxes, regulating the number of restaurants and bars that sell alcohol, holding retailers accountable for harms resulting from selling alcohol to minors, and placing limits on the days and hours alcohol can be sold — with some success.
But a number of states are redoubling efforts to educate women and their health care providers about the widely misunderstood risks of what many people consider harmless levels of drinking.
The article notes that even for women who do not become addicted to alcohol, having more than seven alcoholic drinks in a week puts them at higher risk for heart disease, stroke and liver disease. The recommended maximum level for men is twice that amount.
Research has found that alcohol is a carcinogen, meaning it increases the risk to both men and women of a variety of cancers, including cancers of the colon, liver, esophagus, throat and mouth. Many medical professionals insist that any alcohol consumption can be harmful, an unwelcome message for many who enjoy an occasional drink.
Women who have even one drink a day have a 10 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer than women who do not drink, and the risk rises another 10 percent for every extra drink they have a day, according to 2009 research from the University of Oxford.
Year after year, alcohol kills 88,000 Americans when accidents and diseases are combined. And the annual cost to the nation, including health care, death, incarcerations and lost productivity, is roughly $250 billion.
“It’s the elephant in the room when we talk about substance abuse,” Koob said. “Nobody wants to talk about it because we’ve made so little progress in reducing it over the years.”
Despite the rise in drinking rates among women, men are still more likely to be drinkers than women. Seventy-seven percent of all men drink compared to 69 percent of women. And men tend to drink about twice as much as women.
Most worrying is an increase in the frequency and intensity of binge drinking among women and girls, said Dr. Bob Brewer, who heads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s alcohol division.
In most states, alcohol abuse prevention has focused on women of childbearing age. Alcohol use during pregnancy is the No. 1 preventable cause of birth defects. It can lead to sudden infant death syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which is caused by irreversible neurological damage to the fetus.
Problem is that nationwide, only one in six people report that their doctors have asked them about drinking, and the rate is even lower for women. Experts say this is primarily because physicians tend to rule out excessive drinking as an issue for women.
In February, the CDC called on the medical community to “discuss and recommend, as appropriate, available contraception methods to women who are sexually active and drink alcohol.”
According to the federal agency’s alert, approximately 3.3 million U.S. women aged 15 to 44 who were not pregnant and not sterile were at risk for an alcohol-exposed pregnancy between 2011 and 2013.
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