Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Getting Girls to Drink

Drinking alcohol – particularly excessive drinking –  has long been a male-dominated sport. Males are not only more likely to consume more alcohol but also more likely to experience and cause more alcohol-related injuries and deaths than females.

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But the gender gap is narrowing. And beverage companies are working hard to get young girls to consume more alcohol.

1. Global Alcohol Consumption by Gender. Alcohol consumption, particularly in excess, is linked to numerous negative health conditions and outcomes. These include, most obviously, alcohol dependence, but also depression, anxiety, suicide, crime, and road incidents.  Alcohol use is linked to 2.8 million premature deaths per year. Globally, these concerns have consistently been greater for males than females. But the gender gap is narrowing in many parts of the world, including the United States. 

2. Teen Trends. In the United States, adolescents are reporting overall lower rates of alcohol consumption. In 2020, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, we observed an increase in alcohol consumption and risky drinking behaviors across all demographics, including among teens, but the overall trend since the 1980s among adolescents has been a steady decline in such behavior. From 2001 to 2022, the prevalence of alcohol (mis)use among U.S. teens decreased from 73% to 52% in 12th grade, 64% to 31.3% in 10th grade, and 42% to 15.2% in 8th grade. The overall declining trend is good news, but rates of alcohol misuse are still high among high school students, and the decline among teen boys is greater than among teen girls.

3. Big Soda’s New Drinks. The alcohol industry used to produce drinks that fell into three categories: beer, wine, or spirits. In recent years, a new category of beverages has made its debut: alcoholic drinks that look like seltzers, sodas, and energy drinks. This rapidly growing new class of alcoholic drinks includes ready-made hard seltzers, flavored malt beverages, wine coolers, and canned cocktails. In 2021 alone, sales were nearly $10 billion, and the expectation is that the market will grow by double digits in the coming years.

4. Teen Girls Are Primary Targets. PepsiCo has partnered with the Boston Beer Co. to turn one of its classic sodas into Hard Mtn Dew. Coca-Cola has Lemon-Dou and its new ready-to-drink Jack Daniel’s & Coca-Cola. Even energy drink company Monster Beverage has joined the party with its new line of alcoholic drinks called “The Beast Unleashed.” And teen girls are their primary targets. Some of these drinks are marketed like sodas with a little kick. Just for fun, casual consumption. Many of the drinks do not taste like alcohol due to sugar content and carbonation. Others are marketed as “healthy” alternatives that are low-calorie, sugar-free, or caffeine-free – with the idea that these qualities will be appealing to young women. Columbia University professor and psychiatric epidemiologist, Katherine Keyes, PhD has warned that this push into hard sodas and the targeting of the female drinker, whose alcohol intake has been catching up to males in recent years, poses serious risks of increasing alcohol-related health risks for teen girls and women, and could reverse long-standing gains made across the population in reducing alcohol use related health concerns.

5. What’s the big deal? Teen girls have been reporting declining mental health over the last decade. The pandemic and social media are an important part of this story, at least for some teenage girls. Beverage companies’ aggressive marketing of alcoholic drinks to teen girls makes for a trifecta of external influences that render those who are vulnerable all the more so. Rising concerns about teenage girls’ mental health and alcohol use have serious implications both in terms of overall health, school engagement and performance, quality of life, and social connection today and increases risk in adulthood of developing substance use and abuse disorders, and developing or exacerbating depression and anxiety, and various other mental health concerns.

Surely, the value to society of bolstering girls’ mental health and well-being far exceeds the profit potential the beverage industry is angling to exploit by targeting young women. Sheryl Sandberg said, “We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” What will it take to make this true as it pertains to protecting and promoting the mental health of our daughters, granddaughters, and all future generations of girls?

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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