WASHINGTON – Girls and young women are more easily addicted to drugs and alcohol, have different reasons than boys for abusing substances and may need single-sex treatment programs to beat back their addictions, according to a study released Wednesday.
"They get hooked faster, they get hooked using lesser amounts of alcohol and drugs and cocaine, and they suffer the consequences faster and more severely," said Joseph A. Califano Jr., chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, which conducted the survey of girls and young women over three years.
"With some exceptions the substance abuse prevention programs have really been designed with a unisex, one-size-fits-both-sexes mentality," Califano said. "We now know that girls are different than boys -- let's recognize it and let's help them."
The study, based on a nationwide survey of females age 8 to 22, found the gender gap is narrowing between boys and girls who smoke, drink and use drugs.
Approximately 45 percent of high school girls drink alcohol, compared with 49 percent of boys, and girls outpace boys in the use of prescription drugs, the study found.
While boys often experiment with cigarettes, alcohol and drugs in a search for thrills or heightened social status, girls are motivated by a desire to reduce stress or alleviate depression, the study found.
Girls are also more likely to abuse substances if they reached puberty early, had eating disorders or were ever physically or sexually abused, researchers said.
Their likelihood of using cigarettes, alcohol or drugs also increases when they move to a new community, or advance from middle school to high school or from high school to college.
Califano said more treatment centers need to give female recovering addicts "a chance to be with just women," adding that substance abusers who were victims of physical abuse may not respond well to a group with men.
Some traditional confrontational methods of beating addiction may also be the wrong approach for women, researchers found.
Califano said facilities like the Betty Ford Center, which now has separate treatment programs for men and women, may be the model for future success.
"We have not put together prevention programs that go to the things that influence girls and influence young women," Califano said. "Women have paid a fearful price for this failure."
The study recommends that parents, educators and doctors do more preventive work with girls who fall into the various risk categories.
It also faults alcohol and tobacco companies for promoting their products by linking them to glamorous models, and calls for a ban on alcohol advertising on television and cigarette and alcohol advertising in magazines with large numbers of young readers.