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More women are drinking themselves sick. The Biden administration is concerned – The Mercury News

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Lauren Sausser | KFF Health News (TNS)

When Karla Adkins looked in the rearview mirror of her car one morning nearly 10 years ago, she noticed the whites of her eyes had turned yellow.

She was 36 at the time and working as a physician liaison for a hospital system on the South Carolina coast, where she helped build relationships among doctors. Privately, she had struggled with heavy drinking since her early 20s, long believing that alcohol helped calm her anxieties. She understood that the yellowing of her eyes was evidence of jaundice. Even so, the prospect of being diagnosed with alcohol-related liver disease wasn’t her first concern.

“Honestly, the No. 1 fear for me was someone telling me I could never drink again,” said Adkins, who lives in Pawleys Island, a coastal town about 30 miles south of Myrtle Beach.

But the drinking had caught up with her: Within 48 hours of that moment in front of the rearview mirror, she was hospitalized, facing liver failure. “It was super fast,” Adkins said.

Karla Adkins works as a coach to help people quit drinking alcohol. After she nearly died from liver failure 10 years ago, she thought her social life was over. "Honestly, the No. 1 fear for me was someone telling me I could never drink again." (Allison Duff/TNS)
Karla Adkins works as a coach to help people quit drinking alcohol. After she nearly died from liver failure 10 years ago, she thought her social life was over. “Honestly, the No. 1 fear for me was someone telling me I could never drink again.” (Allison Duff/TNS) 

Historically, alcohol use disorder has disproportionately affected men. But recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on deaths from excessive drinking shows that rates among women are climbing faster than they are among men. The Biden administration considers this trend alarming, with one new estimate predicting women will account for close to half of alcohol-associated liver disease costs in the U.S. by 2040, a $66 billion total price tag.

It’s a high-priority topic for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, which together will release updated national dietary guidelines next year. But with marketing for alcoholic beverages increasingly geared toward women, and social drinking already a huge part of American culture, change isn’t something everyone may be ready to raise a glass to.

“This is a touchy topic,” said Rachel Sayko Adams, a research associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. “There is no safe level of alcohol use,” she said. “That’s, like, new information that people didn’t want to know.”

Over the past 50 years, women have increasingly entered the workforce and delayed motherhood, which likely has contributed to the problem as women historically drank less when they became mothers.

“Parenthood tended to be this protective factor,” but that’s not always the case anymore, said Adams, who studies addiction.

More than 600,000 people in the U.S. died from causes related to alcohol from 1999 to 2020, according to research published in JAMA Network Open last year, positioning alcohol among the leading causes of preventable death in this country behind tobacco, poor diet and physical inactivity, and illegal drugs.

The World Health Organization and various studies have found that no amount of alcohol is safe for human health. Even light drinking has been linked to health concerns, like hypertension and coronary artery disease and an increased risk of breast and other cancers.

More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic “significantly exacerbated” binge-drinking, said George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the National Institutes of Health, as people used alcohol to cope with stress. That is particularly true of women, who are more likely to drink alcohol because of stress than men, he said.

But women are also frequently the focus of gender-targeted advertising for alcoholic beverages. The growth of rosé sales and low-calorie wines, for example, has exploded in recent years. New research published by the International Journal of Drug Policy in February found that the “pinking of products is a tactic commonly used by the alcohol industry to target the female market.”

Also at play is the emergence of a phenomenon largely perpetuated by women on social media that makes light of drinking to deal with the difficulties of motherhood. The misperception of “mommy wine culture,” said Adams, is that “if you can drink in a normal way, a moderate way, if you can handle your alcohol, you’re fine.”



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