Young women & alcohol abuse

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Publication Date: 
Wed, 2010-03-31

A look at trends, consequences, influences, and prevention approaches

Adapted from Girl-Centred Approaches to Prevention, Harm Reduction, and Treatment and Heavy Alcohol Use Among Girls and Young Women: Highlights of Findings from Literature Review and Web Search

Increasing attention is being brought to the issue of substance use by girls and young women, and the associated health and social consequences of heavy drinking, smoking cigarettes, as well as the use of both licit and illicit substances. Historically young men have been more likely than young women to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and use illicit substances, but local, national, and international data now show that this gender gap in substance use is closing.

In 2009, a national virtual Community of Practice (vCoP) provided the opportunity for a “virtual discussion” of issues, research, and programming related to girls’ and women’s substance use in Canada. The goal of the vCoP was to serve as a mechanism for “gendering” the National Framework for Action to Reduce the Harms Associated with Alcohol and other Drugs and Substances in Canada. Participants included planners, decision-makers, direct service providers, educators, NGO leaders, policy analysts, researchers, and interested women. The project was sponsored by the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health (BCCEWH) in partnership with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) and the Universities of Saskatchewan and South Australia.

To inform this discussion, the BCCEWH took a closer look at the heavy use of alcohol specifically, examining trends, risks, influences, and preventative programming available, in a literature review.


In the 2004 Canadian Addiction Survey, over 85 percent of the alcohol consumption reported by females aged 15-24 years was consumed in excess of Canadian guidelines. The report also found 15 percent of young women (18-19) and 11 percent of women (20-24) reported heavy, frequent drinking. British Columbia has one of the highest rates in Canada. The 2008 British Columbia Adolescent Health Survey found male and female students were equally likely to binge drink with males only slightly more likely (less than 1 percent) to binge drink on 20 or more days in the previous month.

A recent international study examining gender specific trends in alcohol using cross-cultural comparisons from 1998 to 2006 in 24 countries and regions, found drinking and drunkenness remained higher among boys than girls, but the gap between boys and girls declined and girls appear to be catching up with boys in some countries. A 2004 survey of England revealed British young women (16 to 24) tend to engage in heavy drinking sessions with 49 percent consuming alcohol over one to three days. They are also likely to exceed the daily benchmark, with 28 percent drinking over 6 units at least once in a week. According to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among young people ages 12 to 22 years old, the percentage of girls who drink alcohol is increasing at a much faster rate than that for boys.

Health Consequences

Girls and young women are at risk for accelerated development of long-term health problems associated with heavy drinking, these include: liver disease; cardiac problems; damage to stomach; brain damage; hypertension; and addiction. Moderate to heavy alcohol consumption also increases girls’ and young women’s risk for breast cancer later in life, as well as other forms of cancer shown to be linked to alcohol including: cancer of the mouth; pharynx; esophagus; colon; rectum; and, liver. Chronic heavy drinking, particularly in adolescence and the young adult years can compromise bone quality, increasing risk of osteoporosis later in life.

Alcohol use also negatively affects puberty and disrupts normal sexual reproductive functioning, which may result in a number of menstrual and reproductive problems, including irregular menstrual cycles, absence of ovulation, endometriosis and infertility. Another key sex difference for young women who consume alcohol is the risk of unwanted, unplanned, or unintended pregnancy due to unprotected and unplanned sex. Findings show young women tend to realize they are pregnant later in term. This raises the concern that young women may consume alcohol before they aware they are pregnant, thereby creating risk of fetal damage such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and other birth defects. Even if they do know, studies show teenage girls are likelier than women of any age to binge drink during pregnancy.

Drinking to intoxication also makes girls and young women more vulnerable to date rape, sexual assault and unprotected sex, also increasing their vulnerability to HIV and sexually transmitted infections.

Key Protective Factors

To better understand gender-specific risk and protective factors for substance use, authors of the report Substance use among early adolescent girls: risk and protective factors surveyed adolescent girls and their mothers about substance use and related concerns. From their study, they identified the following key gender-specific protective factors:

• Going home after school

• Positive body image

• Mother’s knowledge of daughter’s whereabouts

• Mother’s knowledge of daughter’s companions

• Girl’s ability to always contact her parent(s)

• Family rules against substance use

• Parents encouragement to abstain

Influences on Girls’ Drinking

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