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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
Photo by Peter Gene

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