By Maham Shakeel
Image by a4gpa via Fotopedia
“We romance the glass in our culture. We’ve normalized risky drinking and it’s a new, deep love affair,” said award-winning author Ann Dowsett Johnston at the first National Roundtable on Girls, Women and Alcohol last Friday. The conference addressed the rise in women drinking.
The full day event was organized by Dowsett Johnston, author of the 14-part Atkinson series on women and alcohol, published in the Toronto Star. Handpicked alcohol experts were sent invitations to join the national dialogue.
The push to make the issue of alcohol noticed and changed is stalled because no one wants to report the harms of their favourite drug, Dowsett Johnston said. The problem is that our society’s love for alcohol has blurred values which hinders action. She urged for public policies to be made in regards to the issue.
“As Canadians we’re deeply schooled in the harms associated with trans fats and tanning beds, and blissfully unaware of the harms associated with liquor,” she said.
Throughout the roundtable event, entitlement, empowerment and escape came up as reasons to explain why women turn to pouring a drink.
“We see it as a fairytale,” said Dowsett Johnston. “Women say they will drink because they can … they think to themselves, ‘if I drink, I’ll have fun, I’ll get the guy, I’ll be happy.'”
Women often find this romanticized result of drinking on T.V., especially with shows like Sex and the City. David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing in the U.S. said in one of Dowsett Johnston’s 14-part series, “Carrie Bradshaw says this is the image of a powerful woman, a woman with a cocktail in her hand.”
Dowsett Johnston said there has been a sharp decrease for blackout drinking for males but a sharp increase for women. “Women need to step back before blacking out and see they are at risk. It’s a matter of self awareness and ensuring that we’re not vulnerable,” said Dowsett Johnston.
Jernigan said, “In many cases we want young women to catch up to men but not in this one.”
A Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) study published in the journal Addiction this month says Canadians drink more than 50 per cent above the global average. According to Jernigan, women may still drink less than men but are subject to more illnesses and effects from alcohol – a biological disadvantage.
Hypertension, compromised bone quality, reproductive health problems, benign breast disease, vulnerability to STIs, unplanned pregnancy and fetal harm were listed as gender specific problems women face because of alcoholism.
Nancy Poole, Director of Research and Knowledge Translation at BC Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, recalled a nurse who reported that liver cirrhosis used be a problem with older men, but is now common among women as young as 17-years-old.
Poole said there is a misconception where young women feel they are expected to have as many drinks as their partners find acceptable. Women who started drinking at a younger age were more likely to report extreme depression compared to those who started when they were older.
To target women, alcohol companies have marketed their drinks to be antioxidant beer, containing natural or organic ingredients; they have also been sold as diet beverages, or containing zero or a low amount of calories. “It’s scary, the amount of women who are starving themselves so they can drink instead,” said Jernigan.
Jernigan’s marketing research showed that alcohol advertisements were targeted to young audiences and the sexism in the advertisements left the people at the roundtable in shock.
In a commercial for Bailey’s, a cube of ice is dropped into a glass which causes the drink to turn into one hundred dancing women who are dressed in the colour of the Bailey’s cream drink.
Budweiser Black Crown aired an 18 second commercial called “Arrival” where the camera starts at the heels of a woman walking and slowly goes up to her legs, stopping at her stomach to reveal the dress she has on matching the Budweiser drinks in her hand.
“She is the beverage. She is the arrival,” said David on the objectification of women in these advertisements.
Pricing, availability, legal drinking age and warning labels were all brought up during the dialogue as areas that needed to be assessed and changed. Marketing was only one aspect that the roundtable demanded immediate attention for, both through the way women are targeted by advertisements and how women are used to sell the drinks as well.
Alcohol is being marketed on woman’s backs and it’s widely accepted, David said, they are seen as an untapped market and they will be used for sales.
Toronto councillor Adam Vaughan, whose ward includes the Entertainment District, agreed. “It’s time to stop making money off peoples addictions,” he said. Using the example of AIDs and how the public health sparked global dialogue through first making cities talk to each other, Vaughn said the same is needed for the discussion on alcohol.
He discussed how he has been criticized in the past for his works on clubs in his area. “All the hipsters immediately say you’re not cool and the professionals say you’re not helping the free market.” As much as his work may have been scrutinized, he said, “Councillors who five years ago thought I was an alarmist are now starting to ask me, ‘How do we deal with this?'”.
In the same way, Dowsett Johnston is determined to change the outlook on women and alcohol. Although this was the first round table discussion she hosted don the topic, she said to mark calendars because there would be another one next year and there would be a change in the way people see and are effected by alcohol. M