Alcohol advertising linked to ‘increased’ drinking in adolescent girls, Canadian doctor warns

TORONTO — A barrage of alcohol advertising on television, magazines and the Internet isn’t just influencing adults – young women in Canada are drinking more than ever, a medical journal is warning.

The amount of alcohol girls as young as 13 are drinking has “increased substantially,” so much so, it’s now on par with boys, according to an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal released Monday.

Both Canadian and American data point to this alarming trend: about 30 per cent of adolescent boys are taking on what’s called “risky drinking” in both countries. In the U.S., about 30 per cent of young women are doing the same, meanwhile in Canada, it’s 22 per cent.

Risky drinking is about four alcoholic beverages during one occasion. Each unit contains 10 grams of alcohol — that’s 12 ounces of beer or seven ounces of wine, for example.

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“I think parents have a problem. They could berate their daughter, they could warn their daughter, they’re probably not going to listen,” Dr. Ken Flegel, a senior associate with the CMAJ, and author of the editorial, told Global News.

“We should inform these intelligent, investigative, exploring young women,” Flegel said.

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Other data notes that 55 per cent of students from grades 7 to 12 concede that they’ve had alcohol within the past year, Dr. Robert Mann told Global News.

Mann is a senior scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

He says that student surveys show the gap that used to exist between adolescent boys and girls when it comes to drinking are virtually non-existent now. These days, both groups are binge drinking.

Alcohol advertising preying on young women

While the advertising industry isn’t necessarily targeting adolescent women, these young minds are soaking up the message portrayed in these commercials: teenage girls read and watch the same television shows, magazines and websites as adult women, Flegel said.

The ads suggest that drinking will secure a successful life, attractive body and attention from men. “A simple Internet search on ‘women, alcohol, and advertising’ should suffice to illustrate the point,” the editorial said.

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Mann said that students in his research say they know advertisers are targeting them. Marketers are also introducing fruit-flavoured alcoholic products to cater to women.

Flegel warns that this exposure to advertising seems to have a distinct social and emotional effect on girls. It seems to seep into their minds more than their male counterparts and may be why drinking in this age group has jumped so significantly.

Effects of alcohol differ between the sexes

The trouble is, boys and girls aren’t on a level playing field when it comes to alcohol. Women tend to have smaller body mass than men and proportionately less water in their bodies – this disparity means women, young and old, are more likely to feel the effects of alcohol in their system.

Over the long run, women could be at a disadvantage. Liver cancer, heart disease, addiction and dementia are only some of the conditions women could be at risk of if they drink too much, especially if they’re starting at an earlier age, the paper notes.

A recent study suggested girls who started drinking earlier in high school are prone to problem drinking by the time they graduate.

Within the past decade, research has even pointed to a link between alcohol reliance and breast cancer. The editorial says that it’s estimated that four per cent of breast cancer cases have been connected to alcohol use.

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Women are also vulnerable to violence or unwanted pregnancy, the editorial says. It suggests the alcoholic beverages industry’s fledgling relationship with women is a “form of equality” the women’s movement didn’t plan for.

“As many girls now start consuming alcohol at earlier ages, this adverse effect is likely to become more burdensome,” Dr. Flegel writes.

Education, intervention needed to halt adolescent drinking

Flegel is calling for health officials to step in and offer some education and awareness to youth.

He notes that the advertising industry already taps into young smokers, securing consumers before the age of 18. Warning labels and campaigns that counter smoking advertising are already underway in North America — Flegel hopes the same can be done for alcohol.

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“We all know that we are raising a generation of bright, plugged-in and assertive daughters,” Flegel writes.

“When advertising reaches a vulnerable group, such as adolescent girls, they need to understand what it means to be duped by an adult influence that does not have their interest at heart.”

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Flegel is also placing some responsibility on parents and doctors. He says they have a duty to explain the effects of alcohol on the body. In some cases, his adult patients aren’t even aware of the link between excessive drinking and certain cancers.

Meanwhile, Mann said he hopes to look into what alcohol is being used when adolescents binge drink.

“The evidence is much clearer that advertising does influence consumption, does influence people beginning to consume,” Mann told Global News.

Read the full editorial here.

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