I never crashed a car or missed work. In fact, I won awards at work. But during a period of stress and depression, my nightly glass of wine — chopping vegetables, downshifting from work — morphed into a nightly four glasses of wine.
In my book, Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, I expose myself as the poster girl of the modern alcoholic: high-functioning, professional and high bottom. And I'm not alone: around the world, women are closing the gender gap on risky drinking.
My book explores my story, as well as those of many other women, from ages 17 to 84, incorporating a deep analysis of the “pinking” of the alcohol market, the role of trauma and depression in substance abuse, and our romance with the glass.
Here are eight things women should know about alcohol and the alcohol industry:
1. Compared to illicit drugs, alcohol is responsible for a much higher number of deaths.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, excessive drinking is the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States, after smoking and a combination of bad diet and inactivity. By conservative estimates, it’s responsible for 23,000 female deaths each year — more than half from binge drinking.
2. In many ways, the alcohol industry behaves just like the tobacco industry.
The alcohol industry is a multibillion-dollar international industry dealing with market-friendly governments, enjoying a virtually unrestricted market for advertising, despite growing evidence that the substance has significant health risks. In fact, research has revealed that alcohol abuse is a more serious risk for early mortality than smoking — and more than twice as deadly for women than men.
3. Alcohol is a carcinogen, and the risks outweigh the protective factors.
For some time, there's been a clear causal link between alcohol consumption and a wide variety of cancers, including two of the most frequently diagnosed: breast and colorectal. In fact up to 15 percent of breast cancers cases are associated with alcohol consumption. Last year, a study in the respected journal Addiction challenged the broadly accepted assumption that a daily glass of red wine offers protection against heart disease. The protective factor varies by gender — with higher risk for morbidity and mortality for women.
4. Women’s chemistry means they become dependent on alcohol much faster than men.
Women’s vulnerabilities start with the simple fact that, on average, they have more body fat than men. Since body fat contains little water, there's less to dilute the alcohol consumed. In addition, women have a lower level of alcohol dehydrogenase, a key metabolizing enzyme which helps the body break down and eliminate alcohol. As a result, a larger proportion of what women drink enters the bloodstream. Furthermore, fluctuating hormone levels mean that the intoxicating effects of alcohol set in fast when estrogen levels are high.
5. Women’s chemistry also means that they're more negatively affected by the health consequences of drinking.
Cognitive deficits and liver disease all occur earlier in women, with significantly shorter exposure to alcohol. Women who consume four or more alcoholic beverages a day quadruple their risk of dying from heart disease. Heavy drinkers of both genders run the risk of a fatal hemorrhagic stroke, but the odds are five times higher for women.
6. The alcohol industry is wooing women.
Women’s buying power has been growing for decades, and our decision-making authority has grown as well. The alcohol industry, well aware of this reality, is now battling for our downtime — and our brand loyalty. Wines with names like Girls’ Night Out, MommyJuice, Mommy’s Time Out, Cupcake, and yes, Happy Bitch; berry-flavored vodkas, Skinnygirl Vodka, and mango coolers: all are aimed at women.
7. Alcohol is a women’s issue.
Whether it’s a matter of escape, empowerment, or entitlement, alcohol has become a women’s issue. The alcohol business, like the tobacco business beforehand, has taken aim at the female market, and scored. Risky drinking has become normalized, and not all young women will mature out of it.
Here are the questions we need to be asking. Has alcohol become the modern woman’s steroid, enabling her to do the heavy lifting necessary in an endlessly complex world? Is it the escape valve women need, in the midst of a major social revolution still unfolding? How much of this is marketing, and how much is the need to numb?