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Is gender-targeted marketing driving women and girls to drink?
Data on alcohol sales suggest it does, author Ann Dowsett Johnston said Wednesday in Montreal at a National Roundtable on Girls, Women and Alcohol.
Women’s rate of alcohol use is directly related to marketing, what Dowsett Johnston calls “the pinking of the market,” starting in mid-1990s with Alcopops, or sweet alcoholic coolers, and bottles with such names as Girls Night Out Wine, Happy Bitch Wine and Skinny Girl Vodka.
Women are catching up to the men when it comes to drinking, and that’s a global trend in much of the developing world, said Dowsett Johnston, author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, at the panel discussion that was part of a conference by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.
“The richer the country, the narrower the gap,” said Dowsett Johnston, who was the vice-principal of McGill University when she began wrestling with her own drinking problem, as did her mother while she was a child.
“We outnumber men in post-secondary institutions, we go toe to toe in the workforce, we’re half the cabinet in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government. We’re doing well as women. But the one big thing, especially for young women, it’s the one big thing that’s going sideways for girls and women — risky drinking.”
It’s not the rare drunk driver or the homeless man sitting on a park bench with a brown paper bag, she said. “We don’t think it’s our sister or our mother, ourselves, because it’s the highly functioning, well-educated professional woman who is in trouble.”
Wine is the modern woman’s steroid that enables her to do “heavy lifting in a really complex world,” Dowsett Johnston wrote in Drink, it’s “a way to de-stress fast.” One or two glasses of wine become three, four and five.
Dowsett Johnston was recovering from her own battle with alcohol when she published a series of stories that eventually led to her book Drink. The data then showed a heavy spike in drinking among two age groups, 18-24 and 24 to 35, and current data is pointing to teens and preteen youths.
Young girls are drinking more than underage boys, according to a fact sheet prepared by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Binge drinking among teenagers, downing five or more drinks in a couple of hours, is a major public health issue, and recent University of Toronto research shows alcohol consumption among middle school youths, ages 12 to 14, is also spiking.
“Usually he’s drinking beer and she’s drinking vodka or shots. She’s two-thirds his size and she probably didn’t eat before she went out on the date,” Dowsett Johnston
However, extreme drinking in the era of social media is a different beast. “You black out and you’re on Facebook. You get into trouble with guys, as we know from the Rehtaeh Parsons story, and you’re outed.”
Dowsett Johnston co-founded the national roundtable to open a discussion on “our alcogenic culture” that feels very comfortable with the most common drug: booze. She hopes to drive change by pressing on three levers, pricing, accessibility and marketing.
Alcohol use is linked with more than 200 diseases and binge drinking in women is linked to breast cancer, rising cases of liver failure, heart attack and stroke. Also, violence, date rape and sexual assault.
For youth and women the effects of drinking are exacerbated, said Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst on alcohol for the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.
“We know in youth that the brain is underdeveloped and is extremely susceptible to toxic substances,” she said. “And women are more vulnerable to drinking for biological reasons.”