Girls More Prone to Alcohol, Drug Abuse

Girls Get Hooked Faster, Suffer More Consequences

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Feb. 7, 2003 -- Girls may be more vulnerable to the effects of drug and alcohol abuse than boys and require personalized help to bounce back from addiction. A new study shows girls and young women get hooked faster and suffer the consequences of abuse and addiction sooner than boys and young men.

The report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) suggests that unisex prevention programs -- often designed with males in mind -- fail to reach millions of adolescent girls, and new public health efforts are needed to help young women stay away from tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs.

Researchers say that when it comes to drug and alcohol use, the gender gap between boys and girls is quickly narrowing. Despite recent declines in overall youth substance abuse, more than a quarter of high school girls smoke or binge drink, and a fifth use marijuana.

But researchers say girls' substance use can sink into abuse more quickly than boys and the health consequences are more severe in many cases. Early substance use also increases the odds that girls will smoke, drink, or abuse drugs in the future.

The report suggests that if the U.S. had prevention and treatment programs tailored to the needs of girls and young women, the number of adult women who abuse alcohol or drugs or smoke could have been reduced by about 25%. That reduction might have saved 1.1 million women from becoming alcoholics, 500,000 from drug abuse, and 8 million from smoking.

Researchers say girls face many unique risks that can make alcohol and drug use potentially more dangerous for them, for example:

  • Girls are more likely than boys to be depressed, have eating disorders, or be sexually or physically abused -- all of which can increase the likelihood of substance abuse.
  • Girls using alcohol and drugs are more likely to attempt suicide.
  • Substance use can lead to abuse and addiction more quickly for girls than boys even when using the same amount or less of a particular substance.
  • Girls are more susceptible to lung damage as a result of smoking and alcohol-induced brain damage.
  • Girls and young women who frequently use drugs or alcohol are more likely to engage in risky sex or be the victim of sexual assault.

In addition, the study shows girls also differ from boys in whom they obtain access to alcohol, tobacco, and drugs from. They are more likely to be offered drugs and alcohol by female acquaintances and in a private setting, while boys are more apt to receive offers from male acquaintances and in a public setting. Also, girls are less likely to not be asked to show proof of age when purchasing cigarettes, and girls are more likely than boys to say crack cocaine, LSD, and heroin are fairly or very easy to obtain.

"One-size-fits-all prevention hasn't worked -- and it won't because it doesn't recognize these differences," says CASA president Joseph A. Califano Jr., in a statement accompanying the report. "These findings cry out for a fundamental overhaul of public health prevention programs."

The report was based on the results of a national survey of 1,220 girls and young women as well as focus groups conducted with preadolescent girls and their parents about their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors about smoking, drinking, and using drugs. The three-year study was underwritten by the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation.

SOURCE: "The Formative Years: Pathways to Substance Abuse among Girls and Young Women Ages 8-22," National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

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