IA: Binge drinking rates increase among Iowa women
By Mike Kilen
July 12, 2015
Men have long been leaders in binge drinking, but women are starting to close the gap in Iowa.
In 85 of 99 Iowa counties, the rate of increase in binge drinking from 2002 to 2012 was larger among females than males, according to an analysis released this spring of Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data for all 3,000 counties in the U.S.
The shift has occurred amid an increasingly normalized drinking culture, where the beer tent is the mainstay of town celebrations, and it’s not abnormal to drink in in public, prevention specialists say.
Alcohol and wine distributors pump out products specifically targeted to women. Meanwhile, women who struggle with alcoholism say binge drinking tears apart families.
The largest increase was in northwest Iowa’s Dickinson County, home to the Iowa Great Lakes, which saw a 50 percent increase among females in binge drinking, defined as four drinks over a two-hour period at least once in the previous month. More than 1 in 4 women in the county were binge drinkers in 2012, the highest in the state.
Dickinson County is steeped in alcohol consumption because of its reputation as the summer resort capital of Iowa. The high number of partying visitors also creates the demand for a high number of alcohol retailers, which makes booze readily available, said Mary Sloan, a prevention supervisor for Compass Pointe Behavioral Health Services, a private nonprofit agency that provides prevention and treatment services in nearby Spencer.
Culture contributes to problem, experts say
But the issue is part of a larger cultural shift, Sloan says.
“We have more women in the workforce with more responsibility and more stress — and less pay,” she said. “Alcohol is seen as a way to reduce stress.”
What Erin Foster said was once a “male prerogative” — 28.5 percent of Iowa men were binge drinkers in 2013, down from 30.3 percent in 2002 — is increasingly a problem among females (15.1 percent, up from 10.7 percent in 2002).
A change in social norms regarding alcohol consumption begins to show in high school and college as women follow the cues of the alcohol industry, which markets fruit-flavored or low-calorie products to women, said Foster, a Linn County prevention specialist with the Area Substance Abuse Council.
Wine labels have also marketed to mothers in particular. On its website, “Mommy’s Time Out” wine (which also has a “Dad’s Day Off” label) says, “We All know that being a Mommy is a difficult job. A Mommy’s Time Out is a well deserved break.”
“There are also studies that say a glass of wine is good for you,” Foster said. “Some women take that and run with it. But it means one drink of 3 to 5 ounces of wine. Not a bottle here and there.”
‘Beer tent is at the center of everything’
Iowa women are also part of an Iowa culture steeped in booze consumption.
The state’s rate of binge drinkers (21.7 percent) is significantly higher than the national average (16.9 percent), and higher than in all but four states.
Six of the top eight states are in the Midwest, including top-ranked North Dakota.
In the Midwest, alcohol is prevalent and normalized.
“It’s a part of a lot of family gatherings and community events. In small-town celebrations, the beer tent is at the center of everything,” said Julie Hibben, a prevention specialist with the Iowa Department of Public Health. “That is something we are trying to get people to realize: It doesn’t have to be the center of every community event and family function.”
People often don’t think they are binge drinkers.
“They think that having six beers is a normal evening,” she said.
In the past, the vision of a female heavy drinker was one who quietly got plastered in the kitchen, experts say. But there is more public drinking today. You can have a glass of wine at the hair salon or the park, and it’s accepted.
“In the past, a lot of women stayed at home and drank, and nobody knew until they got very sick and needed help,” Hibben said.
In 2010, 88,660 deaths in the U.S. were attributed to alcohol, and excessive drinking costs society $660 billion annually, according to the report “Drinking Patterns in U.S. Counties from 2002 to 2012,” published in the American Journal of Public Health in April.
Excessive drinking is linked to a host of health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, liver problems or alcoholism, and can lead to injuries, automobile accidents and legal issues.
Experts say that alcohol affects women differently from men because of differences in their water content and body chemistry. With an equivalent amount of alcohol, they also absorb more in their bloodstream.
With the craft beer craze, that creates problems, Sloan said, because the alcohol content is not consistent. Many women don’t know that the percentage of alcohol in a craft beer may be as much as double as that of mass-produced lager. Suddenly, they are quite drunk.
Little evidence more women seeking help
In Iowa, the number of women who were convicted of operating while intoxicated (OWI) has increased 17 percent in the last 10 years, while the OWI rate for men fell 13 percent.
Yet there is little evidence that more women are seeking treatment for alcohol dependence.
At Powell, only 1 in 5 in treatment is a woman, and recent admissions have actually declined.
At Area Substance Abuse Council treatment centers in five eastern Iowa counties, the number of women seeking treatment for alcohol problems has decreased in recent years — to 297 in 2014 from 469 in 2007.
“Sometimes it can be harder for women to leave the family setting. If you work and take care of kids, it is very difficult to step away,” Foster said.
The solution to the problem often is centered on education geared toward young people, not adult women drinkers. But a federally funded five-year program by the Iowa Department of Public Health that ended in January, which addressed alcohol problems in 23 Iowa communities, noticed an increase in drinking by older adults, whose top substance of choice was still alcohol, while marijuana was tops among younger groups.
One health department strategy to combat this was advertising messages aimed at adult women.
The department produced posters, radio ads, social media and website campaigns in 23 of the highest-need counties in Iowa with anti-binge-drinking messages that featured a mother.
Another cost of binge drinking: Ten percent of binge drinkers become alcohol dependent.
“You can be a binge drinker only on the weekend and still end up with a problem with alcohol. It’s a myth you can drink occasionally and it’s OK,” Hibben said. “You have to think how much you are drinking.”