Women and alcohol: To your health?

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Publication Date: 
Wed, 2012-06-06

When did the alcohol market become so pink, so sweet, so female-focused? David Jernigan has spent his career watching the industry. Executive director of the Baltimore-based Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, he cites the mid- to late 1990s as the period when the spirits industry began to target women. Beer had ruled North America: beer was fun, beer was sports. The spirits industry was languishing, seen as stodgy and boring. Suddenly, it decided to play catch up.

“They became incredibly aggressive at growing the market,” says Jernigan. “They looked at who was underperforming, and of course, they saw women. For them, this was a global opportunity.”

Thus was born the alcopop. Also known as the cooler, “chick beer” or “starter drinks”—sweet, brightly coloured vodka- or rum-flavoured concoctions in ready-to-drink format. “They’re the anti-beer,” says Jernigan, “drinks of initiation, cocktails with training wheels. They’re the transitional drinks, particularly for young women, pulling them away from beer and towards distilled spirits. Getting brand loyalty to the spirits brand names in adolescence, so that you get that annuity for a lifetime that beer marketers like to talk about. An obvious product for reaching this wonderful and not yet sufficiently tapped market of young women.”

Is Carrie Bradshaw, the Sex and the City character played by Sarah Jessica Parker, to blame for the martini-shots-vodka culture? Can it all be laid at her Jimmy Choos? “Let’s put it this way,” says Jernigan. “We cannot discount Carrie Bradshaw. But if Carrie Bradshaw hadn’t been accompanied by a push by the spirits industry, she would have been a pebble in the pond. As it was, she was a boulder. Women had never been targeted before in the way they were targeted: after alcopops came distilled spirits line extensions—flavoured vodkas, absolutely every fruit you could imagine.”

 “In the past 25 years, there has been tremendous pressure on females to keep up with the guys,” says Jernigan. “Now, the industry’s right there to help them. They’ve got their very own beverages, tailored to women. They’ve got their own individualized, feminized drinking culture. I’m not sure that this was what Gloria Steinem had in mind.”

Women and drinking: the marketing is undeniable—and so is the stigma. Just ask “Jennifer. ” In fact, of all the women I interviewed for the “drinking diaries” during the past year, only three brave individuals chose to go public in my series of articles for The Toronto Star.


When I asked each interviewee if they would rather be known as a depressive or an alcoholic, not one person chose the latter. It turns out their instincts were good. My series of articles drew an overwhelming response, and a large proportion was positive, empathetic to the stories of addiction and recovery. My mailbox overflowed with encouraging messages: the series “should be required reading in every school in the country . . . Don’t stop writing!”

But on the web, there were other voices. “Addiction is not a disease,” wrote one person. “It’s a personal lifestyle choice . . . people need to be held accountable for the choices they make . . . let’s stop pampering them and justifying their behaviour by putting nice little disease labels on it.”

 “Alcohol and drugs are the means for people who lack intestinal fortitude to face trauma,” wrote another. “Stop glorifying addictive personalities and making excuses for lack of courage.”

More than one reader argued back: “So, you say alcoholism isn’t a disease? So it’s the alcoholic’s fault? . . . We would love to be able to enjoy a drink or two responsibly without any incident. Unfortunately, this is not the case … Ignorance may be bliss, but it is definitely counterproductive.”

Is alcoholism a disease? Peter Thanos says yes. A neuroscientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y., Thanos is blunt: “We have known for more than 20 years that alcoholism is a chronic, relapsing brain disease. Science supports this truth.”

Patrick Smith, former vice-president of clinical programs at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and new CEO of Toronto’s Renascent treatment centre, is also blunt: “The jury is in. The Canadian Medical Association calls it a disease. The American Medical Association calls it a disease.”

Smith believes social drinkers have a difficult time understanding the physiological realities of alcohol dependence. “It’s not part of their lived experience,” he says Smith. “Still, no one says: ‘Just because I don’t have diabetes, it doesn’t exist.’”

Why do so many still see addiction as a moral failure? Why such stigma?

Reader T. J. Harrison, an alcoholic, wrote of the “shame that attaches to the label . . . an alcoholic woman is just a blowsy, sloppy object of mockery, dismissed as vulgar, unladylike and worse.”

Says Nancy Black, director of concurrent disorders at St. Joseph’s Care Group in Thunder Bay: “Addiction is so far into the shadows because of stigma. It’s viewed as an issue of bad choices, wilfulness or lack thereof. Mental health has had national leadership on anti-stigma, and addiction needs a similar national response. But the voices are silent.

She’s right. When it comes to leadership, mental health has had any number of prominent advocates, most notably former federal finance minister Michael Wilson. For years, Wilson has spoken about the death of his son, Cameron, by suicide. Over time, many families have joined him with their own stories of loss.

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