Drinking is at Emergency Levels for Young Women

A study of alcohol-related ER visits in Ontario has shown a sharp spike for young people, particularly women. Why might that be?


Alcohol-related emergency department visits are on the rise among Ontarians, including a sharp increase with women and young people, according to a new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Even though middle-aged men (aged 45-54) continue to be the top population for this category of ED visits, the findings show that young adults aged between 25-29 are catching up fast. There was a 175% jump over the study period (2003-2016) for all adults in this demographic and a 240% jump for women specifically.

“These increases are consistent with data showing increasing average weekly alcohol consumption in Ontario and higher rates of binge drinking across Canada during the study period, particularly in women,” commented lead author Daniel Myran in a press release.

The team, composed of researchers from the University of Ottawa, Ottawa Hospital, the Bruyere Research Institute, and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, set out to examine what populations are most affected by alcohol abuse and how this has evolved over time.

They looked at data sourced from multiple provincial databases on all Ontarians aged between 10 and 105 across the study period, taking into account 765,000+ alcohol-related ED visits made by around 480,000 individuals, 32% of whom were women.

“We saw problems with people who were coming in who were intoxicated, people who were coming in in withdrawal, people coming in with liver disease, with all sorts of other organ damage that comes from that. And people who’ve had poisonings from drinking too much alcohol as well,” said Myran.

Myran added that this doesn’t take into account ED visits which are an indirect result of alcohol consumption, like health complications, violence, or vehicle crashes.

Overall, scientists found that alcohol-related visits climbed 7% annually over 14 years, increasing at 4.4 times the rate of total ED visits. Female alcohol-related ED visitors were almost twice as likely as men to be underage, and participants from low-income neighbourhoods had twice the number of visitors compared to wealthier participants.

In a related commentary, Sheryl Spithoff from the Toronto Women’s College Hospital noted that the physiological differences between men and women mean that the latter are more vulnerable. She points to data that show that women are dying at a disproportionate rate (up 26% since 2001) compared to men when it comes to alcohol-related mortality.

Other reports have noted a growing issue of alcohol use and abuse among women and young people across Canada. Highly-targeted advertising aimed at this cohort and glamorous media portrayals may be partially to blame according to the authors, but field experts have commented that other factors like major life stressors on youth and the lax socio-cultural attitude to alcohol compared to drugs may be relevant.

Myran concluded that there is a need for further research on the youth- and gender-specific risk factors for alcohol harms to clarify why these trends are occurring.

Unearthing potentially harmful trends and the reasons they arise are essential to keeping entire societies healthy. The information gathered from this research can form the basis for targeted programs that reduce the destructive effect of alcohol on vulnerable populations.

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Barry is a journalist, editor, and marketer for several media outlets including HeadStuff, The Media Editor, and Buttonmasher Magazine. He earned his Master of the Arts in Journalism from Dublin City University in 2017 and moved to Toronto to pursue a career in the media. Barry is passionate about communicating and debating culture, science, and politics and their collective global impact.