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Addiction's Shrinking Gender Gap

In countries where women have more opportunities, they have an unfortunately higher risk of addiction.



This article originally appeared on The Fix.

The worse women have it, the better off they are. This is the lesson we might draw from looking at one (and only one) global trend: addiction. Worldwide, women have always had lower rates of drug and alcohol use and dependence than men. But as women’s access to opportunities grows along with a  nation’s affluence, this gender gap begins to close. In fact, just as women often outstrip men in the classroom and office if given the chance, they have already forged ahead in the abuse of certain substances. It may not be the most celebratory way to mark  International Women's Day (March 8), but the fact is, equal rights have their penalties.

In the  US about 7% to 12% of women are dependent on alcohol—about two-thirds of men’s rate (20%). This gender gap is one of the smallest in the world, exceeded only by that in some European nations, where young women’s use of drugs is over 70% of men’s. By contrast, the gap in the developing world is much larger. In India, Pakistan and Indonesia, for example, women’s drug use is less than 10% of men’s. In Brazil and Argentina, women's use is 33% of men's. But as economic powerhouses like India and Brazil expand their middle class, they are also likely to assume other traits of developed nations: Rates of drug and alcohol use will rise across the board—but most of all for women.

The gender gap has been shrinking since the '70s as the stigma against women drinking (and abusing) alcohol has decreased while their access to booze has increased. Over the 20th century, smoking and drinking rates saw a gradual but steady rise among women—as women first in the upper class, next in the middle class, and finally in the lower class took up these habits. Affluence granted women more freedom and leisure time, but the rise in mass advertising of these products in after World War II also played a role.

Susan E. Foster, vice president and director of policy research and analysis at the  National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, notes that the rates of addiction accelerated in the ‘70s and ‘80s; since then rates have fallen for both sexes, but less for women, effectively diminishing the gender gap. The great wave of feminism emerging from the cultural revolution in the late ‘60s shattered traditions restricting female social roles and liberating women to participate in the male world. They were now able to work and drink with the boys.

Not so in the developing world, where the gender gap remains wide and wider. (The one exception is among sex workers, who have high addiction rates.) The second-class status of women accounts for this extreme difference. Throughout the Arab world and Southeast Asia, women’s roles are primarily within the home as wives and mothers. The sexes are, to varying extents, segregated, and public spaces are dominated by men, with bars, for example, off limits to women. Men typically control the finances, leaving women with few means to purchase illicit substances. In addition, there is often less education around addiction in developing countries, leading to greater stigma for addicts. Women are more heavily affected by this stigma.

As fast-developing nations, fueled by economies growing at double-digit rates, become global forces, substance use and addiction rates increase for both sexes. In South Africa, men are twice as likely as women to use illicit drugs (and 10 times as likely to use pot.) Expansions in systems of transportation and communications, and the establishment of an advanced banking structure, facilitate the illicit trafficking of many commodities, including drugs. This process is even more prevalent in China, where unprecedented economic growth has created a rapid rise in drug abuse rates for both men and women. The influx of people into China’s urban centers is expected to more than triple in this decade alone, with the majority of these new arrivals aged 15 to 35. They will face both the stresses of an industrial lifestyle and the vastly  increased availability of both illicit drugs and alcohol. The current addiction gender gap—only 16% of registered drug addicts in China are female—is set for accelerated narrowing.

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