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Report: Binge Drinking on Rise in Young Women

This could lead to increase in fetal alcohol syndrome

WEDNESDAY, June 23, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Binge drinking among young women is on the rise, bringing with it a number of health consequences, including fetal alcohol syndrome.

That's the conclusion of a report, Alcohol and Pregnancy Don't Mix, issued Wednesday by the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. It found that binge drinking in women aged 18 to 44 increased in the United States by 13 percent between 1999 and 2002.

Binge drinking, defined for the purposes of this report as having more than five drinks on one occasion, puts women at an increased risk for unintended pregnancies and means they are more likely to drink while pregnant.

Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, called binge drinking "a national problem."

"It results in a number of negative effects ranging from automobile fatalities to fetal alcohol syndrome to all sorts of other problems," he said.

Tom Donaldson, president of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, said, "Binge drinking and heavy drinking patterns present the most and greatest risk for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and as we see the increase across the board nationally, that's very alarming to us."

According to NOFAS, every year 40,000 babies are born with disorders -- also known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders -- related to prenatal drinking. That translates into approximately one per 100 live births. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders can describe a number of effects, including physical, mental, behavioral and/or learning disabilities that all result from a mother drinking while pregnant.

The report, based on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that reports of frequent drinking during pregnancy doubled from 0.8 percent in 1991 to 1.6 percent in 2001. In 2001, 12.5 percent of U.S. women reported drinking some quantity of alcohol while they were pregnant, about the same as the 12.4 percent rate in 1991. A 2002 survey found that 9 percent of pregnant women reported drinking alcohol during the past month while 3 percent reported binge drinking.

The five states and areas with the largest increases in binge drinking between 1999 and 2002 were Arizona (137 percent), Illinois (77 percent), the District of Columbia (62 percent), Connecticut (48 percent), and Maine (44 percent).

The largest decreases were seen in Kentucky (30 percent decline), Hawaii (23 percent), Alabama (20 percent), Indiana (19 percent) and New Hampshire (18 percent).

Why the overall increase? Experts aren't sure, but advertising might have something to do with it.

"The general thinking is that the market has shifted to women as a very easy target," said Dr. Gopal Upadhya, medical director of Areba Casriel Institute, a substance abuse treatment facility in New York City.

"The marketing of alcohol, the specials that are offered around campuses that make getting drunk cheaper than going to the movies, are an allure that draw people to drinking more than they normally would," Wechsler added. "The more prices are lowered and drinks becomes super-sized, the greater the chance that people will drink more at a sitting."

Another expert, however, questions whether there is a rise in binge drinking.

Michael Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center at Northern Illinois University, noted that the U.S. government narrowed the definition of binge drinking in February. Under the new description from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinking is "a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood-alcohol concentration to 0.08 or higher." This means four or more drinks in two hours for a typical woman, whereas the term "occasion" is not defined in the NOFAS report.

"This [new] definition might cause this study to show that rates have declined," Haines said. "It has to be taken with a grain of salt because the federal government made it obsolete."

He added, "In all of the excitement, it shouldn't be lost that the vast majority of women are not binge drinkers."

With the release of the report, the NOFAS has called on Congress to devote more resources to combat alcohol-related birth defects. And members of Congress reciprocated by announcing the formation of the new Congressional Caucus on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.

Surveillance, said Donaldson, is critical. "We've got to get a handle on how many newborns are actually affected," he said. "We want to encourage more resources for this type of data collecting."

More information

Read about the risks of drinking during pregnancy from the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

SOURCES: Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., director, College Alcohol Studies, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; Tom Donaldson, president, National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Washington, D.C.; Gopal Upadhya, M.D., medical director, Areba Casriel Institute, New York City; Michael Haines, director, National Social Norms Resource Center at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb; National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome report, Alcohol and Pregnancy Don't Mix: Binge Drinking Among Women 18-44 on the Rise, released June 23, 2004
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