Prepared Foods August 23, 2005, enewsletter

Girls are moving further and further away from sugar and spice and everything nice.

Last year, researchers and teachers reported an increase in bullying behaviors among kindergarten and preschool girls. This week, a survey released by the American Medical Association (AMA) says teenage girls are more likely than boys to obtain alcohol illegally.

That girls are laying claim to behaviors once the exclusive domain of boys is not entirely bad, but turning to violence and alcohol probably is not anyone's idea of progress.

"This is a wake-up call," says AMA president Edward Hill, a family physician from Tupelo, Miss.

The survey also shows that girls are more likely than boys to get alcohol from parents, including from parents of friends. Hill speculates it is harder to turn down a request from a girl. "Parents see it as more innocuous," Hill says.

Psychiatrist/psychologist Duncan Clark, director of the Adolescent Alcohol Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh, says the AMA findings are consistent with a trend that has largely gone unnoticed: Girls and boys are becoming more similar in their alcohol use. He cites a 2004 nationwide survey of eighth- and ninth-graders showing girls were more likely than boys to binge -- that is, drink at least five drinks, usually beer, within a two-hour period.

The AMA commissioned the survey of 701 teens in the wake of research that shows the human brain does not stop growing until 21 or 22, and that alcohol consumption can alter or retard that growth, including memory and test-taking ability.

"Think SATs," says David Jernigan, research director for the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University.

Damage to the brain is real for boys and girls, but a girl who drinks is at greater risk -- and not just for the obvious reasons of tarnished reputation, sexual misconduct, unwanted pregnancy, or sexually transmitted disease. The way the female body processes alcohol makes girls more susceptible to alcohol poisoning, hepatitis B, and liver and heart disease, and also affects menstrual cycles and fertility, says Hill.

"A reasonable goal for parents is to delay that first drink for as long as possible: 16 is better than 14; 18 is better than 16, and 21 is better still," says Jernigan.

Many parents apparently doubt their influence. At least that is one explanation Clark offers for the finding, which surprises him, that parents are more likely to supply alcohol to girls.

"Parents seem to think the only choice is between supervised drinking and unsupervised drinking. That is a fallacy, and it is dangerous," he says, because it leads girls to conclude there is such a thing as "safe" drinking.

The findings also raise a critical question: Why are girls today more interested in alcohol than they used to be? There' is no research on this yet, but there is speculation:

Girls start getting messages about drinking at very young ages. Colby College gender researcher Lyn Mikel Brown says girls grow up thinking drinking is normal and glamorous, because messages about alcohol are all around them from a young age: toys like Bratz dolls and My Scene Barbie, which feature pool- and bar-side drinking scenes; reality shows where alcohol is prominent; alcohol-product placements in video and films that young girls watch; and alcohol ads that appear on programming popular among preteens, such as Seventh Heaven and Gilmore Girls.

Girls are specific targets of marketing. Jernigan says girls under 21, and especially 13 to 15, get a heavier exposure to alcohol marketing than girls of legal age and see 95% more alcohol advertising than the typical 35-year-old. Much of it is in the magazines girls read, especially Cosmopolitan, In Style, Vibe, Entertainment Weekly and Vogue, he says, but radio ads are also huge. "It flies under parents' radar because we don't listen, watch or read the same things. Surprise, surprise," says Jernigan. "Studies show that the more alcohol advertising teens are exposed to, the more likely they are to drink."

Source: Boston Globe