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Addiction, In the News, Public Health, Women's Health

Alcoholism: Not just a man’s problem

Alcoholism: Not just a man’s problem

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Updated 11:45 AM: Audio from the Forum show is now available here.


When I first started working in alcoholism treatment programs 25 years ago, women were a rare sight. But as with every other arena of American women’s lives, things have changed dramatically since. Far more women drink alcohol and far more end up developing alcohol problems.

The change is particularly stark in the college setting, including at Stanford. Once primarily a young man’s game, risky drinking at college is now as much or even more common among women.

The change is sometimes attributed to women being under greater stress today than in prior eras, but that is improbable. Women’s lives are in fact substantially better in the past few decades: Their incomes are up and sexual violence against them is down, for example. And as any female senior citizen could attest, it’s not as if life for women was stress-free until now.

More likely explanations are that alcohol companies have directed advertising much more heavily at women, and that the cultural stigma against heavy drinking by women has waned. Women have more freedom to do many “male things” than ever before, which is in most respects a wonderful thing. But there are negative consequences when women engage in dangerous behavior normally more characteristic of men, such as heavy alcohol and tobacco consumption.

Through metabolic mechanisms that are not fully understood, women experience greater physical damage from the same amount of alcohol than do men. That’s why safe drinking guidelines are lower for women than men.

I’ll discuss these issues on KQED’s Forum at 10 AM Pacific time today with Gabrielle Glaser, author of a new book on drinking problems among women. Please listen in and add your thoughts if you can.

Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

Previously: Examining how addiction in the U.S. has changed over the last decade, College without booze: harder than it sounds, A sobering study suggests that binge drinking may lead to permanent brain damage, Fighting binge drinking on campus and TV characters’ drinking problems: Not that funny
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Pregnancy, Public Health, Women's Health

Quitting smoking for the baby you plan to have together

Quitting smoking for the baby you plan to have together

My best friend finally succeeded in his efforts to stop smoking when he experienced a highly motivating life change: Fatherhood. Likewise, many women discover that wanting to have a safe and healthy pregnancy gives them unprecedented desire to kick their tobacco habit. Knowing the research and clinical evidence may be useful to parents-to-be who have some questions about smoking:

  1. Quitting smoking is very hard – does it really make enough difference to be worth it?  Yes. To get one sense of the impact of smoking on fetal development, recall the widespread panic in the 1980s about “crack cocaine babies.” Subsequent research has shown that the damage to fetuses of cigarette smoking is in fact worse than that of crack cocaine use. Even if it didn’t benefit the fetus (and later, the infant) for a mother to quit smoking, it would still be worth using the extra motivation to quit that pregnancy provides for the sake of the mother’s long term health.
  2. When is the best time to try to quit? Early. In an excellent lecture I saw last week, Professor Zachary Stowe, MD, with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, pointed out that the soonest a woman can know she is pregnant is 4-6 weeks after conception, at which point fetal organogenesis is well underway. Further, Stowe and other researchers have conducted research identifying nicotine and its metabolites in the fetal compartment even after the mother has stopped smoking. Dr. Stowe therefore suggests that rather than waiting to quit until after stopping birth control or after pregnancy has been confirmed by a test, a mother-to-be should wait two weeks after quitting smoking before going off birth control. Note: Even if you didn’t do this, quitting smoking at any point later in the pregnancy is still good for the fetus (and for you too).
  3. I smoke, but I’m not carrying the baby, so why does it matter whether I quit? This isn’t just about mom. Passively absorbed smoke contributes to nicotine in the fetal compartment, meaning that even if the mother quits, smoking by her partner may affect the fetus. Also, an added benefit to a couple of quitting together is suggested by research and clinical experience in addiction treatment: Relapse is more likely when the visible, auditory and olfactory cues of substance use remain in the environment. Hence, a mom-to-be is going to have a much harder time quitting cigarettes if her partner remains a smoker. More positively, if two people quit together they can remove those cues from the environment and also have built-in social support for resisting the cravings they both may experience.
  4. Where can we get help with smoking cessation? Free resources are just a click away here. If you need extra support, consult your physician, who can help you both with smoking cessation and with other conditions you may have (e.g., depression) that make it hard to quit.

Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

Previously: Craving a cigarette but trying to quit? A supportive text message might help, Exercise may help smokers kick the nicotine habit and remain smoke-free, Kicking the smoking habit for good and Can daily texts help smokers kick their nicotine addiction?
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Addiction, Health Policy, Research

Stopping criminal men from drinking reduces domestic violence

Living in London this year on sabbatical, I worked with the Mayor’s Office and Parliament on a law that gave courts the power to sentence alcohol-abusing criminals to a period of mandatory sobriety. The new law was modeled on the successful “24/7 sobriety” program in South Dakota, which requires convicted drunk drivers to submit to twice-a-day breathalyzation.

At the time of the UK law’s passage, some women’s rights activists and politicians expressed concern that what worked with drunk drivers could be counter-productive with binge drinking wife batterers. Thanks to a study released on Friday by researchers at the RAND Corporation, these concerns can be laid to rest: Mandatory sobriety programs reduce both drunk driving and domestic violence.

The RAND research team, led by Beau Kilmer, PhD, exploited the fact that the mandatory sobriety program was initially rolled out slowly across South Dakota (it now operates statewide). This created a natural experiment in which counties that had yet to start their 24/7 sobriety program could be compared to those where the program was up and running. After looking at data on 17,000 offenders from 2005-2010, the researchers found that, as intended and expected, the program reduced repeat drunk driving arrests by 12 percent.

The pleasant surprise of the study was that domestic violence arrests dropped by almost as much as 9 percent. To put that figure in human terms, consider that even conservative estimates (link to .pdf) place the number of American women who are assaulted by an intimate partner at 1 million per year. A 9 percent drop would result in more than 100,000 fewer women being victimized each year, which would be an enormous benefit for women’s rights, health and safety.

How did 24/7 sobriety achieve this remarkable effect?  Part of it is the program’s structure. Any offender who misses a breath test or shows up intoxicated endures a swift and certain consequence (typically, a night in jail).  Faced with an approach that differs starkly from the more traditionally leisurely and unpredictable habits of the criminal justice system, most offenders change their ways. Indeed, over 99 percent of the more than 4 million breathalyzer tests done by the program have been negative.

But another factor is clearly at play. Though heavy drinking has become more common among young women, getting drunk and wreaking havoc remains primarily a young man’s game. In some South Dakota counties, as many as 10 percent of all young adult males have been on 24/7 sobriety.  To quote Dr. Kilmer, “If you get a bunch of problem drinking males aged 18-40 to massively reduce their alcohol consumption, you shouldn’t be surprised to see a reduction” in domestic violence. After all, many a yob who drinks and drives also drinks and beats up his spouse or girlfriend.

Now that the data are in, courts should go forward without fear in applying mandatory sobriety sentences to a broad range of alcohol-involved crimes, including domestic violence. The result will be fewer road deaths, less property damage and less victimization of women.

Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

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Addiction, Parenting, Pediatrics, Public Health

How to prevent prescription-drug misuse among teens

How to prevent prescription-drug misuse among teens

The Medicine Abuse Project is being launched this week by a coalition of public-health, public-safety, governmental and private-sector organizations. The Project is a response to the past decade’s sharp increase in medicine abuse – including among teenagers. Overdose from prescription drugs is now more common than overdose from heroin and cocaine combined. And medication abuse carries a high risk of addiction, particularly in the teenage years, a period of significant neuroplasticity in brain development.

What can be done to reduce the prevalence of prescription medicine misuse among teens? The Medicine Abuse Project suggests two important strategies:

  1. Secure your medicine cabinet. In many American homes, parents keep the liquor cabinet locked, but leave potentially dangerous medicines in an unlocked cabinet to which their children have easy access. Survey research shows that this is a far more common source of abused medicines than is the stereotypical “street corner” drug dealer.
  2. Participate in National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day this September 29. Take-Back Days, which are coordinated by the Drug Enforcement Agency, allow anyone to drop off leftover, expired and/or unwanted prescription medications with no questions asked. The most recent take back day resulted in the disposal of an astounding 276 tons of medication.

In addition to these two steps, parents can also do more to educate themselves and their children about the dangers of abusing medicine. For example, while almost all parents would agree that heroin (an illegal opioid) is dangerous and would not want their children using it, many of these same parents are unaware that prescription opioids such as Oxycodone can be just as dangerous. Indeed, parents may worry about the wrong thing: An American 12th-grader is more than 10 times as likely to abuse prescription opioids than they are to abuse heroin.

To get involved and learn more visit the Medicine Abuse Project’s website.

Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

Previously: Examining how addiction in the U.S. has changed over the last decade, Turn in your old pills on April 28, Governors to Congress: Help us fight prescription-drug abuse and How to combat prescription-drug abuse
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Addiction, Health Policy

Do opium and opioids increase mortality risk?

Overdose from prescription opioids (e.g., Oxycodone or Hydrocodone) has become one of the most common causes of accidental death in the United States. Two new articles in BMJ suggest that overdose is not the only risk about which patients, prescribers and policy makers should be concerned.

Khademi and colleagues conducted a prospective study of a cohort of 50,045 Iranians. They followed up over 99 percent of the sample and then assessed the impact of opium use on mortality. After statistically adjusting for cigarette smoking, education, age and other factors, the research team reported that opium use nearly doubled the risk of death. The number of diseases with increased incidence among opium users was large, and included tuberculosis, cancer and COPD. The results held even when the researchers excluded from analysis individuals who started using opium in response to the onset of a chronic illness.

These results do not necessarily generalize to prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin. Unlike opium, which comes directly from the poppy flower, modern, synthetic opioids are free of impurities and are never smoked. Further, opium use in Iran may be a marker for other risk factors (e.g., poor self-care habits or social isolation) for which the epidemiological study could not fully adjust.

That said, in an accompanying commentary in BMJ, Dhalla notes that preliminarystudies have found indications of higher death rates in patients who take opioid medications (versus, for example, NSAIDs). The increased death rates are not simply attributable to accidental overdoses. None of these studies of prescription opioids is definitive, but they certainly justify a larger replication research effort along the lines of the Iranian study of opium users.

The worrisome fact about prescription opioids is that their use has grown (.pdf) extraordinarily rapidly in a very short period in the United States, to over 200 million prescriptions in 2010 alone. As a result, any adverse impacts of opioids that take a few years to accrue may hit the population in a tidal wave before there is time to understand and prevent the damage.

Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

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Addiction, Research, Technology

CDC binge-drinking study demonstrates cell phones' value in research

CDC binge-drinking study demonstrates cell phones' value in research

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new finding that 38 million Americans engage in binge drinking is, quite appropriately, causing widespread alarm. But below that headline is an important secondary point: We have been underestimating the rate of binge drinking for a long time because researchers haven’t surveyed cell phone users until now. This year’s survey was the first to include cell phones, and the number of binge drinkers jumped as a result.

There’s an intriguing history here.

The arrival of landlines in virtually every American home was a godsend to survey researchers. A survey researcher could draw a random sample of phone numbers and be confident that it was representative of the U.S. population.

To preserve this representativeness, researchers wouldn’t necessarily survey the person who answered the phone. If you’re old enough to remember growing up in a home with a landline, you’ll know why: who answered the family phone was rarely random. For example, in some homes mom always did it even when dad was home, in other homes dad did it only if he had a teenage daughter and wanted to screen potential suitors, and so on.

Telephone survey researchers would handle this by asking the person who answered the landline phone a randomizing question within the household (e.g., the would ask to speak to the person in the household whose birthday was closest to a randomly chosen date).  This technique combined with the ubiquity of landlines made household landlines a fabulous way to survey random, representative samples of Americans about political attitudes, dietary habits, product purchasing patterns and a million others things, including, of course, drinking patterns.

The emergence of cell phones ruined all that. Particularly when they first became available, people who owned them were a non-representative sample of the population. Since they were usually not shared, you couldn’t “re-randomize” within a group when someone answered as you could on a shared household landline; your only choice was typically the phone owner. In addition, the phone numbers weren’t usually listed so it was hard to get the sample of phones to call in the first place.

For years I’ve been attending meetings of alcohol survey researchers during which colleagues lamented the rise of cell phones as a threat to survey research but couldn’t come up with a solution. Each year their response rates were getting lower, and their samples less representative as younger people opted not to have landlines.

The CDC managed to crack into the cell phone survey game with its latest effort – something for which they should be applauded. (How they got the numbers I don’t know.) The changed picture reflected in this year’s results show the advantage of their method, and show that cell phone surveys are the wave of the future not just for drinking problems but for all the other health and social phenomena that are the focus of survey research.

Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

Addiction, Cancer, In the News

The wrong reason to lionize Christopher Hitchens

At a party last year I chanced to turn my head and see a famous person, about whom two things immediately impressed me: One, he was downing glasses of whisky at an alarming rate, and two, he looked pale and sickly. The man was Christopher Hitchens, who died of esophageal cancer this past week at the age of 62.

As tributes to Hitchens have poured in from around the world, many people who knew him have appropriately lauded his astonishing erudition and stylish writing. But a disturbing number have either made light of or even romanticized his prodigious consumption of alcohol. This is at best foolish and at worst dangerous.

The contribution of heavy alcohol consumption to automobile accidents, family violence, liver cirrhosis and a host of other problems has been well-known for decades. In more recent years, increasing evidence has implicated alcohol consumption in the genesis of many cancers (e.g., of the oral cavity, larynx and pharynx). Most cases of esophageal cancer, which ended Hitchens’s life as well as that of his alcoholic father, are attributable to heavy, regular alcohol consumption. When heavy alcohol consumption is combined with smoking, the risks of cancer rise even further.

Whether they intend it or not, in their public statements some people who clearly cared about Hitchens have trivialized the behavior that took their friend from them years before his time. Hitchens himself was both more serious and honest, when he said in one of his last television interviews “to anyone watching, if you can hold it down on the smokes and the cocktails you may be well advised to do so.”

Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

Clinical Trials, Research

Clinical trial research that knocked my socks on

Every once in a while, a colleague gives a research presentation that knocks your socks off. John Strang, MD, of Kings’ College London, gave one last week that had the reverse effect.

Strang was discussing randomized clinical trials and noting that they are useless for some very important questions (e.g., “Should I ask that nice girl out?”) and unneeded for others (e.g., “Does wearing a parachute when jumping out of the plane actually confer an advantage over the no-parachute control condition?”). But when randomized trials meet the right sort of question, there is no more powerful method for gaining knowledge that can literally be life-saving.

The example Strang gave was that of compression socks and deep vein thrombosis (DVTs) on long haul flights. Also known as “coach class syndrome,” DVTs are a blood clot which forms in the vein when you sit still for hours. Theoretically you can avoid them by getting up regularly and moving around the plane, but, even if you don’t fall asleep, that’s often hard to do on packed flights (and can feel awkward in an age of post-9/11 wariness among flight crews). Compression socks have none of those practical barriers. But do they work?

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Addiction, Mental Health

Addiction: All in the mind?

For a brief period of my life, I consumed far more opioids than the most hardened heroin addict. After a freak injury that left me with my femur broken into two jagged pieces that spiraled past each other, shredding my muscle and flesh, I was in so much pain that my doctors attached a self-controlled morphine pump to my body. For the next five days I voluntarily consumed an amount of morphine that literally would have been fatal before my injury. But the day after the surgery that pinned my femur back into one piece, my pain lessened enormously and I immediately lost all interest in using morphine. So, was I addicted for those five days or not? And if so, did my doctors do me a disservice by letting me take large doses of powerful drugs?

Answering questions like these is one of the main motivations behind recent efforts to reclaim “addiction” from popular slang (e.g., America is “addicted to debt,” Robert Palmer was “addicted to love,” etc.) and make it a credible, reliable, and understandable medical diagnosis. Distinguishing a “large amount of substance use” from “addiction” has been central to this effort, not least so that doctors will be unafraid to adequately treat acute pain such as I experienced in the hospital. A further motivation, which no doubt inspired the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s just-released redefinition of addiction (.pdf), is to help addicted people better understand their condition and to help the rest of us understand how to help them.

In addiction, something happens in the brain that did not happen in mine during my hospital stay: An enduring change to the structures and systems that shape memory, learning, emotion and reward. Although both genetic and environmental factors are known to be implicated, no one knows precisely why some people undergo these changes when they extensively use psychoactive substances and other people do not. But scientists do know that once these changes have occurred, they persist long after the substance use has stopped. Once someone is addicted, they will, even during periods of non-use, think about the psychoactive substances more often, overestimate their value (i.e., feel they are more important than eating, sleeping, work and family responsibilities) and have urges to return to use.

As half of the U.S. population is overweight, many people are familiar with an analogous biological process. Once you have put on a lot of weight, even if you lose it later, it is as never as easy as it once was to maintain a healthy weight. Your body has produced more fat cells and you have a different appetitive set point such that if you diet to get back to the normal weight, you may feel as hungry as if you were starving. If you respond to this feeling by eating more you will eventually regain the weight you lost, sometimes again and again, just as an alcoholic might get on and fall off the wagon over and over.

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Addiction, Behavioral Science, Medicine and Society

College without booze: harder than it sounds

“Still Sociable at Stanford” wrote to Dear Abby last week asking for advice about a problem that usually isn’t mentioned in discussions of college drinking: How does a non-drinker handle social pressure to imbibe?  The members of the Stanford community have a widely shared commitment to diversity, and we are almost self-consciously laid back and accepting of people whose beliefs, behaviors and background are different than our own. If you are a left-handed Lithuanian lesbian who uses a wheelchair, supports nuclear power and dabbles in paganism, we are totally cool with that, but if you don’t drink alcohol, some of us just can’t let that pass without comment. Why?

Social-norms research reveals that people judge how much drinking is too much by looking at the people around them, and they don’t like feeling that they are above the norm. I’ve studied this phenomenon in a research program directed by John Cunningham, PhD, of the University of Toronto. When we show heavy drinkers objective data on where they stand relative to other people of their age and sex (e.g., “You drink more than 85 percent of the population”) they feel uncomfortable, which often leads them to cut back on their alcohol consumption.

Similar psychological processes may come into play when non-drinking and heavy-drinking college students interact on campus. Heavy drinkers among a group of other heavy drinkers (e.g., at a party) will feel more comfortable about their level of alcohol consumption than they would if there were non-drinkers hanging around to provide a different comparison point, much as Bashful and Grumpy probably had no anxieties about their height until Snow White met them and the other dwarves.

As Dr. Cunningham’s studies show, heavy drinkers sometimes react to their discomfort at seeing that they drink relatively more than other people by taking a hard look at their own drinking.  But in a research study, such feedback comes from a standardized computer printout, whereas at a party it comes from the behavior of another human being, which opens up a different way for a heavy drinker to respond: Pressure the abstainer who makes you uncomfortable into having some drinks.

On a typical U.S. campus, between a quarter to a third of students never or almost never drink alcohol, so there is no rational basis for such students to be viewed as bizarre outliers. With more than 1,800 college students dying in alcohol-fueled incidents a year, and many times that number being involved in alcohol-related injuries and assaults, it would be more sensible for us to collectively apply social pressure to people who drink too much rather than those who don’t drink at all.

Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

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