Alcohol abuse among women is on the rise. Yet far too few people are willing to discuss the harmful effects of our society’s favourite drug, argues Ann Dowsett Johnston, Artsci’75, author of the bestselling book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol (Harper Collins, Canada).
“It’s way riskier for women to drink than for men to do so. We get addicted much faster and the negative health results come much earlier.” Alcohol, she adds, has become an urgent women’s health issue.
“In Britain, we’re even seeing a growing number of women in their twenties with end-stage liver disease, classically an old man’s condition.”
Ann Dowsett Johnston, the author of Drink.
What’s needed, Dowsett Johnston believes, is the same kind of discussion around women and alcohol that we’ve had around tobacco use.
In a chapter in her book that’s titled “Binge: The Campus Drinking Culture,” she examines one venue in which dialogue is long overdue: universities. “We know that in the college years there’s an escalation of risky drinking among young women, and a lot of what goes wrong goes wrong then,” she says.
Times have changed since Dowsett Johnston’s student days at Queen’s. In the ’70s, it was “uncool” for women to drink excessively. “Today, when I ask bright young women on campus about their favourite drinks, they’ll say shots, or more alarmingly, Red Bull and vodka. My generation typically drank beer with their boyfriends or we drank wine. Now it’s more hard liquor, more binge drinking, and keeping up with the men.”
Dowsett Johnston notes that drinking to “black out” has become normalized. “I was very, very disturbed by the story in my book about incoming students being told to write the name of a roommate or friend on their arm before partying. That way, should they pass out, someone would know who to call to get them home.”
Alcohol’s dangers are familiar to Dowsett Johnston. An award-winning writer and editor and onetime
senior university administrator at McGill University, she has been in recovery herself for the past
five years. The daughter of alcohol-addicted parents, she grew up in northern Ontario,
rural South Africa, and Toronto. Dowsett Johnston’s mother was “a classic ’60s alcoholic,
a stay-at-home mom who mixed Valium with cocktails.” Her dad became an alcoholic in retirement,
and died of the disease.
As a journalist, Dowsett Johnston spent a year as the 2010 Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy investigating women’s drinking patterns and alcohol policy in various countries. Her research fueled a 14-part Toronto Star series in 2011; with Drink, released in 2013, she added her own story.
Universities, she argues, have an important role in promoting public discussion about alcohol abuse – for both genders. “I’d like to see awareness campaigns. It used to be that young people’s drinking
slowed down after graduation, but that’s not happening anymore. Something has really changed.”
She notes that Acadia University, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, is working to initiate a Canadian coalition focused on helping universities work together to combat the problems and dangers involved in high-risk drinking. “A lot of acculturation in terms of how people drink and treat alcohol happens on campuses, and so universities are in a prime position to address the issue,” says Dowsett Johnston.
The need for dialogue is ever more pressing, she adds. “Since I wrote that series of articles on alcohol abuse for the Toronto Star, the ‘Skinnygirl’ product line has taken off, as have ‘Mommyjuice’ and the infamous ‘Happy Bitch Wines.’ Marketers are targeting women, risky drinking is getting worse, and we still aren’t educating ourselves on the health risks.”
Dowsett Johnston’s goal in writing Drink, and in her related activities, is to “provoke awareness” on campuses and beyond. In 2013, she co-founded the National Roundtable on Girls, Women and Alcohol, which educates and advocates for changes in Canadian alcohol policy, and Faces and Voices of Recovery, a nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to activism.
“I’m not a prohibitionist,” she emphasizes. “I just want to open the dialogue and bring issues into public consciousness.”