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Are Girls More Vulnerable to Substance Abuse than Boys?
February 10, 2003
Maia Szalavitz
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse cries wolf again

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA)or, as it is known to its critics, the National Center on the Abuse of Statistical Analysis is at it again. CASA, which once claimed that 25% of all alcohol is consumed by underage drinkers (and when confronted with the actual government figure of 11.4%, said that the real figure is probably 30%) now wants us to believe that addiction has become an epidemic among girls.

CASA's latest "study" (actually a survey and compilation of other people's research, which, inter alia cites news articles as some of the sources for its "scientific" claims), announces that "girls are more vulnerable [than boys] to substance abuse and addiction and its consequences."

But the report never mentions that the vast majority of drug addicts and alcoholics are now, and have always been, male. Seventy percent of all treatment admissions in the Treatment Admission Data Set, a research database of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, are males. And this holds true for the youngest group, teens aged 12-17. These figures have remained stable from 1992-2000.

It is true, as the report claims, that female drug users are more likely to have mental illnesses like depression. However, this probably reflects that drug use for girls is more stigmatized than it is for boys, so only those who are really unhappy or disturbed try drugs. This self-medicating aspect also accounts for why a larger proportion of girls who try drugs eventually develop problems. But it is far from clear that it has something to do with women as a gender being more vulnerable to addiction, though, of course, gender differences are possible.

CASA would also have us believe that caffeine is the new gateway drug for girls. It reports that girls who drink coffee are more likely to drink alcohol (69.8% of coffee drinkers tipple, as opposed to 29.5% of abstainers) and smoke (23.2% v. 5%). But note that this tells us nothing about whether they become addicts or alcoholics. Furthermore, there's a much more sensible explanation, which the report itself spotlights as a key reason why girls take drugs. More girls than boys take drugs to lose weight - and caffeine can kill appetite; so again, it's probably a correlation with weight loss obsession, not a pharmacological effect.

At least some in the media is getting wise to CASA. Despite its alarming claims, The New York Times didn't mention the report, The Washington Post gave it less than 300 words in a round-up on page 18. But USA Today spotlighted the caffeine "connection" (though it did have a critic say it could be a sociological, not biological effect) and both NBC's "Today Show" and CBS' "Early Show" invited CASA's head Joe Califano and its board member Columba Bush on. Predictably, softball questions were the order of the morning, and critical guests were not invited.

Sadly, the need for specialized addiction treatment for girls and women is a real and urgent one - but using misleading statistics isn't going to help the cause.



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