You've come the wrong way, baby


WASHINGTON -- Usually, there's good reason to cheer when a group that's been left behind closes the inequality gap.

But a new study showing greater equality between the sexes is not going to cause any celebration.

The first comprehensive report ever issued on the impact of substance abuse among women reveals that the gap between the number of women and men who use tobacco, illegal drugs and alcohol has been narrowed. In fact, among teen-agers, it has been wiped out.

Moreover, the study, conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, indicates that women are paying a high price for "equality" -- they get drunk faster, become addicted more quickly, and develop substance abuse-related diseases sooner than men.

According to the report, 21.5 million American women smoke, 4.5 million are alcoholics, 3.5 million misuse prescription drugs, and 3.1 million report that they regularly use illicit drugs.

At least one out of five pregnant women -- some 800,000 a year -- smokes, drinks and/or uses drugs. This, notes the report, puts the "woman herself and her newborn in great and avoidable danger."

Tobacco, alcohol and drugs are serious threats to the healthy life of a newborn. Tobacco is the No. 1 preventable cause of low birth-weight, and alcohol is the No. 1 cause of retardation.

Lyndon Johnson's former health secretary, Joseph A. Califano Jr., the president and chairman of CASA, noted that "drug use, usually heroin, signs death warrants for thousands of babies before they've received birth certificates."

Alcohol and sex

Even in the privacy of their bedrooms, the study points out, drinking can have the opposite effect on women from what is intended. Alcohol wipes out sexual inhibitions all right, but those who drink heavily often experience difficulty in reaching orgasm. This, says the report, can be a particular problem for those women who often use alcohol to "treat" sexual dysfunction, which usually precedes heavy drinking.

Young girls, too, are caught up in the campaign for "equality." Daughters are 15 times more likely to begin using drugs by age 15 than their mothers were. They are just as likely as teenage boys to smoke and drink and use illegal drugs. In fact, other studies have found that among college students, women are more likely than men to smoke.

In releasing the CASA study, former First Lady Betty Ford spoke about the need for expanded treatment. She noted that only 14 percent of women who need treatment actually get it.

"Men and women exhibit alcohol and drug abuse differently. With men, the manifestations are external, such as drunk driving and frequent fighting," said Mrs. Ford. "The symptoms for women, on the other hand, are inner-directed, such as depression, low self-esteem and anxiety, often rooted in being abused as a child."

The CASA study showed a frightening link between tobacco and drugs and a preoccupation of girls and women with being thin. Girls are likely to smoke to control their weight. Many women don't quit smoking because they fear the weight gain that often comes with it. And since heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines can suppress appetites, some women use them to lose weight.

Mr. Califano called on the fashion industry, which has a huge influence over girls, to stop extolling "thinness and heroin use by promoting 'junkie chic' on the runway and in fashion layouts."

The familiar slogan tells women, "You've come a long way, baby." But in light of the CASA study, suggests Mr. Califano, maybe we should add, "You've come the wrong way."

Carl T. Rowan writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 8/13/96

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