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Binge Drinking Among Women Is Both Dangerous And Overlooked

Jan 8, 2013
Originally published on January 9, 2013 9:59 am

Binge drinking is something many people want to shrug off.

But officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it's a public health problem that deserves more attention.

You might be tempted to think binge drinking is mainly an issue for men, but that's not the case. So the CDC is putting the spotlight on women's binge drinking, which it says is both dangerous and overlooked.

About 13 percent of U.S. women go on drinking binges each month, says the CDC, citing survey data collected in 2011. Among high school girls, the figure is around 20 percent.

Consuming four or more drinks in a single session is considered a binge for women, in case you were wondering. For men, five or more drinks define a binge.

All told, the CDC figures 14 million women in the U.S. binge drink. Those who binge, do it an average of about three times a month. And when they binge, they're drinking around six drinks each time. Most binge drinkers aren't dependent on alcohol, the CDC says.

Binge drinking is more common among non-Hispanic whites (a prevalence of 13 percent). And it becomes more common as household income rises. It's most frequent — at 16 percent — among women in households earning $75,000 or more a year.

The CDC says the harms from binge drinking, which run the gamut from preventable death to unintended pregnancy, can be curbed with greater awareness and thoughtful interventions.

Dr. Robert Brewer, head of the CDC's alcohol program, called the prevalence of binge drinking among women and girls "alarming to see." But, he said in a statement Tuesday, there are prevention strategies that work, including restrictions on alcohol sales, and better screening and counseling.

A previous study found that college students (both male and female) who black out from drinking are the most likely to wind up in the emergency room. Prevention efforts geared to them could pay particular dividends.

The CDC didn't explore why women binge drink. But some researchers place at least part of the blame on alcohol companies targeting women with advertising and new products.

"Virginia Slims was the beginning of an increase in cigarette smoking for women," says David Jernigan, a specialist in alcohol policy at Johns Hopkins, tells NPR's Rob Stein. "The equivalent in alcohol has been the rise of these products we call 'alcopops.' They're fruity, bubbly, brightly colored. On college campuses they're known as 'chick beer.' "

Jernigan says these products are cheap, advertised widely and sold in many grocery and convenience stores, encouraging girls and young women to abuse alcohol.

The alcoholic beverage industry disputes all this. While the industry agrees that binge drinking is a problem, it says that drinking among teens is at an all-time low, and that there's no evidence the marketing of specific products plays any role in binge drinking.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an influential group that sets guidelines for basic medical care, says that screening adults, including pregnant women for alcohol misuse, makes sense. Even brief counseling sessions can help curtail risky drinking, the task force concluded last year.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Federal health officials issued a warning today about binge drinking among girls and young women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says binge drinking is surprisingly common among female high school and college students. And experts warn that it can be even more dangerous for women and girls than for men and boys. NPR's Rob Stein has our report.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: When people think about binge drinking, it's usually associated with young men, like these fraternity brothers in the 1978 comedy "Animal House."


JOHN BELUSHI: (as Bluto) Toga. Toga.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Toga. Toga. Toga. Toga.

STEIN: But according to Thomas Frieden of the CDC, the problem of binge drinking is hardly limited to boys.

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: Binge drinking is recognized as a serious problem for men and boys. It's also a serious and under-recognized problem for women and girls.

STEIN: Now, boys are still more likely than girls to binge, meaning they consume at least four drinks at a time. But according to the CDC's new analysis, one in five high school girls and one in eight women binge drink on a regular basis. Here's how much and how often.

FRIEDEN: Women who binge drink do so about three times a month with about six drinks on average per sitting.

STEIN: All together, the CDC estimates that there are about 14 million American women who binge drink three times every month. And who are the most likely binge drinkers?

FRIEDEN: Generally, these are younger women, white women and higher income women.

STEIN: That's women ages 18 to 34 who live in homes that earn at least $75,000 a year. Here's the concern: binge drinking is very risky behavior: drunken driving, accidents, increased risk for heart disease. But girls face even more risk than boys, most notably an increased risk for breast cancer.

FRIEDEN: There are about 23,000 deaths a year in women and girls due to drinking too much alcohol, including binge drinking.

STEIN: And there are still other additional risks for women and girls. When anyone drinks too much, they are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, which means they could get a sexually transmitted disease. But girls can also end up with an unintended pregnancy. And if they're already pregnant when they binge, they could lose or hurt the baby. Now, the CDC didn't explore why women binge drink, but experts like David Jernigan at Johns Hopkins have and idea. They blame at least part of the problem on alcohol companies targeting women with advertising in new products.

DR. DAVID JERNIGAN: Virginia Slims was the beginning of an increase in cigarette smoking for women. The equivalent in alcohol has been the rise of these products we call alcopops. They're fruity, bubbly, brightly colored. On college campuses, they're known as chick beer.

STEIN: But Jernigan says these products are more like cocktails than beer.

JERNIGAN: The young women always used to drink beer. Now they're more likely to drink distilled spirits. This is a bad idea because the inexperienced drinkers are now experimenting with the strongest form of the drug out there.

STEIN: To counter binge drinking, Jernigan and others would like to see restrictions on advertising and marketing of these and other products, higher taxes on alcoholic beverages and limiting who can sell alcohol.

JERNIGAN: What the research finds is the fewer places there are to buy alcohol the less the population will drink.

STEIN: For their part, the alcoholic beverage industry disputes all this. They agree binge drinking is a problem, but point out drinking among teens is at an all-time low. Ralph Blackwell heads The Century Council, an industry funded group.

RALPH BLACKMAN: Underage drinking numbers have been going down steadily for many, many years.

STEIN: And Blackwell argues there's no evidence the marketing of specific products plays any role in binge drinking.

BLACKMAN: This is not about the product of choice here. This is about the pressures that young people - again, young men and young women - face in terms of the reasons they consume - stress, peer pressure - to fit in.

STEIN: Instead, Blackwell says, parents, especially mothers, need to play more of a role in discouraging alcohol abuse by their daughters. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.