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Booze causing 'crisis' for women

| Friday, Dec. 23, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Washington Post
Women sample and drink wine at a festival in Raleigh, N.C. Women consume the majority of wine in the United States.

The ads started popping up about a decade ago on social media. Instead of selling alcohol with sex and romance, these ads had an edgier theme: Harried mothers chugging wine to cope with everyday stress. Women embracing quart-sized bottles of whiskey, and bellying up to bars to knock back vodka shots with men.

In this new strain of advertising, women's liberation equaled heavy drinking, and alcohol researchers say it both heralded and promoted a profound cultural shift: Women in America are drinking far more, and far more frequently, than their mothers or grandmothers did, and alcohol consumption is killing them in record numbers.

White women are particularly likely to drink dangerously, with more than a quarter drinking multiple times a week and the share of binge drinking up 40 percent since 1999, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal health data. In 2013, more than a million women of all races wound up in emergency rooms as a result of heavy drinking, with women in middle age most likely to suffer severe intoxication.

This behavior has contributed to a startling increase in early mortality. The rate of alcohol-related deaths for white women ages 35 to 54 has more than doubled since 1999, according to The Post analysis, accounting for 8 percent of deaths in this age group in 2015.

“It is a looming health crisis,” said Katherine M. Keyes, an alcohol researcher at Columbia University.

Although independent researchers are increasingly convinced that any amount of alcohol poses serious health risks, American women are still receiving mixed messages. Parts of the federal government continue to advance the idea that moderate drinking may be good for you. Meanwhile, many ads for alcohol — particularly on social media — appear to promote excessive drinking, which is universally recognized as potentially deadly. These ads also appear to violate the industry's code of ethics, according to a Post analysis of alcohol marketing.

For example, when girl-power heroine Amy Schumer guzzled Bandit boxed wine in the movie “Trainwreck,” Bandit's producer, Trinchero Family Estates, promoted the scene on social media. Young women responded with photos of themselves chugging Bandit. Within months, Trinchero said, sales of boxed wines — sometimes called “binge in a box” — jumped 22 percent.

“We saw it first with tobacco, marketing it to women as their right to smoke. Then we saw lung cancer deaths surpass deaths from breast cancer,” said Rear Adm. Susan Blumenthal, a former assistant surgeon general and an expert on women's health issues. “Now it's happening with alcohol, and it's become an equal rights tragedy.”

Alcohol marketing is regulated primarily by industry trade groups, but dozens of studies have found lapses in their record of enforcing the rules. As a result, an international group of public health experts convened by the World Health Organization's regional office in Washington, D.C., plans to call in January for governments worldwide to consider legislation similar to laws adopted a decade ago to sharply curtail tobacco advertising.

Officials with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, one of the largest U.S. trade groups, defend their record of oversight, saying it has received high marks from federal regulators.

DISCUS tells members that ads should not “in any way suggest that intoxication is socially acceptable conduct.” The Beer Institute tells members that their “marketing materials should not depict situations where beer is being consumed rapidly, excessively.” And the Wine Institute prohibits ads that make “any suggestion that excessive drinking or loss of control is amusing or a proper subject for amusement” or that directly associate use of wine with “social, physical or personal problem solving.”

But these rules appear regularly to be flouted, particularly on alcohol companies' websites and social-media feeds, which are soaking up a growing share of the more than $2 billion the industry is expected to spend on advertising this year. And the trade groups acknowledge that they do not investigate or act on possible violations unless they receive a formal complaint.

Some of the edgiest ads appear on social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — where they can be narrowly targeted toward the inboxes of the most eager consumers.

Jokes about becoming inebriated are common.

Women also are frequently shown drinking to cope with daily stress. In one image that appeared on a company website, two white women wearing prim, narrow-brimmed hats, button earrings and wash-and-set hair confer side by side. “How much do you spend on a bottle of wine?” one asks. The other answers, “I would guess about half an hour ...” At the bottom is the name of the wine: Mommy's Time Out.

Another ad on a company website features a white woman wearing pearls and an apron. “The most expensive part of having kids is all the wine you have to drink,” it says above the name of the wine: Mad Housewife.

This spring, Mad Housewife offered a Mother's Day promotion: a six-pack of wine called Mommy's Little Helper.

“The rise in hazardous drinking among women is not all due to the ads. But the ads have played a role in creating a cultural climate that says it's funny when women drink heavily,” said Jean Kilbourne, who has produced several films and books about alcohol marketing to women. “Most importantly, they've played a role in normalizing it.”

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