February 23, 2006

Women's Drinking Rises

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In a typical Monday morning class, you’re likely to overhear at least three crazy weekend stories, such as an “I’m so hung-over” admission and a multitude of references to “Beast,” Keystone and beer pong battles.

Now, chances are that turning around to address the storyteller will bring you face-to-face with not a fraternity brother or jaded senior but one of Cornell’s 6,750 female undergraduates. Recent data collected by Gannett Health Services indicate a rise in the number of Cornell women engaging in high-risk drinking practices-a pattern leading to many questions about the reasons behind this increase.

Surveys conducted by Gannett in 2005 show that 83% of the overall student body consumes alcohol – slightly lower than the national average of 85%. Of this number, 45% reported engaging in “high-risk drinking” – having five or more drinks in a sitting – in the past two weeks.

While the number of men who reported engaging in high-risk drinking remained constant at approximately 49%, the jump in the number of females practicing in high-risk drinking is alarming. In 2000, 34% of female undergraduates reported engaging in high-risk drinking in the past two weeks. In 2003, that figure jumped to 43% and, in 2005, has remained stable at 42%.

“I think that this is a trend that is here to stay,” said Deborah Lewis, an alcohol projects coordinator at Gannett.

Lewis notes that the alcohol industry has picked up on this trend and is increasing promotion aimed at female drinkers. In response to the increase in female drinking, Gannett has launched its “Smart Women” media campaign – targeted specifically at Cornell’s undergraduate women.

The Smart Women campaign – highly visible on campus with its latest poster, “smart women know what to take to a party” – was created with the help of student focus groups in the fall of 2005.

“[The campaign is] a positive, empowering message for women” that “reflects their real lives,” said Gannett Health Educator Jan Talbot. The Smart Women campaign focuses on a “harm-reduction” approach to alcohol awareness, “which, rather than asking students not to drink, suggest ways to reduce negative consequences associated with drinking.”

While Gannett already sponsors preventive measures for students, including AlcoholEdu for freshmen and Brief Alcohol Screening Intervention for College Students for individual cases, the “Smart Women” campaign is being launched because female drinking is “a complex problem that needs a multi-faceted response,” according to Lewis.

Part of solving this difficult issue is figuring out the reasons behind the increase in high-risk female drinking. One reason may be the increased tendency among females to consider men the norm in regards to drinking – a dangerous practice that ignores the fact that women are more likely to be adversely affected by a fewer number of drinks. A woman’s blood alcohol concentration tends to be higher than that of a man who has consumed the same amount of alcohol, with side effects including nausea, memory loss, poor academic performance, victimization and alcohol poisoning.

Another reason ties in to the social rituals associated with drinking. While one Facebook.com group jokingly proclaims, “the city of Ithaca is my reason for drinking,” drinking has become a weekend staple at Cornell, with an overwhelming majority of the student body reporting participation.

Another disturbing trend among female drinkers is the increased number of female high-risk drinkers involved in the Greek system at Cornell. According to surveys done by Gannett, 72% of sorority members at Cornell reported engaging in high-risk drinking practices in the past two weeks – up from 64% in 2000. By contrast, 36% of Cornell women not affiliated with the Greek system reported practicing high-risk drinking in the same survey. In an effort to respond to these figures, Gannett included sorority women in the focus groups aiding in the development of the Smart Women campaign.

As the number of female high-risk drinkers looks to remain relatively stable in the near future, the focus has shifted from prevention to harm-reduction techniques for women. These include optimal BAC calculations, educating women on the dangers of high-risk drinking and practicing safer drinking techniques. And next Friday night, remember that “keeping up with the guys” isn’t always a good thing.

Archived article by Christine Ryu
Sun Staff Writer