$2.7M Federal Study: Why Do Lesbians Have Higher 'Risk for Hazardous Drinking'?

March 19, 2013 - 8:36 AM

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $2.7 million to study why lesbians are at a higher “risk for hazardous drinking.” (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $2.7 million to study why lesbians are at a higher “risk for hazardous drinking.”

The University of Illinois has received grants since 2009 for its project, "Cumulative Stress and Hazardous Drinking in a Community of Adult Lesbians," which aims to develop “culturally sensitive” strategies to prevent lesbians from being drunks.

“Studies using both probability and nonprobability samples provide ample evidence of lesbians' vulnerability to hazardous drinking,” the grant’s description reads. “However, very little is known about the factors that increase lesbians' risk for hazardous drinking.”

“We propose to build on and extend our study of sexual identity and drinking… to model effects of cumulative stress on hazardous drinking among lesbians.”

The researchers theorize that lesbians report higher rates of traumatic events, making them more likely to engage in hazardous drinking, which has been defined by NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as “more than 7 drinks per week or more than 3 drinks per occasion for women.”

Furthermore, the problem may be worse for “lesbians of color,” the researchers say.

The grant states that there are “chronic stressors unique to sexual minorities, creating cumulative stress that may be compounded in lesbians of color.”

The study is being led by Tonda Hughes, professor at the Department of Health Systems Science at the University of Illinois, an “internationally recognized expert in the area of alcohol use among lesbians,” according to the University.

The researchers are using a sample of 384 adult lesbians—50 percent of whom are a racial or ethnic minority—who were interviewed in 2000 and 2004, and a new panel of 250 lesbians. The grant states that the new panel was oversampled with Black and Latina lesbians, and young lesbians ages 18 to 25.

The specific aims of the study include: “to test models of the relationships between cumulative stress and hazardous drinking in lesbians,” and “the relationships between early and later risk factors and hazardous drinking.”

The study will try to determine whether childhood sexual abuse, “sexual- minority stressors,” and “racial/ethnic-minority stressors” predict hazardous drinking in lesbians, and which lesbians are at the highest risk.

“Findings will have important scientific and public health implications for identifying groups at greatest risk for hazardous drinking and for developing culturally sensitive prevention and intervention strategies,” the grant states.

Dr. Hughes has been receiving grants administered through the NIH National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) to study women and alcohol use since 2002.  Hughes was the project leader for that study between 2002 and 2005, which received a total of $1,479,783.

In 2009, Hughes began leading this follow-up study, focusing on alcohol abuse and lesbians in particular. Since then the project has received a total of $2,675,202, averaging $668,800 in grants per year.

The University of Illinois is not alone in receiving federal funds to study “sexual minorities” and their propensity to drink. The University of Washington has been awarded $1,154,445 since 2010 for its project “High Risk Drinking in Emerging Adult at-Risk Women,” which seeks to find out why young lesbians and bisexuals face an “elevated” chance for hazardous drinking.

Old Dominion University in 2012 received $446,056 for its study titled “Minority Stress, Alcohol Use, and Intimate Partner Violence Among Lesbians.”

As CNSNews.com previously reported, the NIH also is funding a study to examine why “three-quarters” of lesbians are obese, spending a total of $1.5 million on that research.

Requests for comment from the NIAAA and Dr. Hughes were not returned by publication of this story.

After this story was posted, however, the press office of the NIAAA sent a statement to CNSNews.com that reads: "NIH research addresses the full spectrum of human health across all populations of Americans. The cost of excessive alcohol consumption in the United States reached $223.5 billion in 2006. Alcohol use, the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., is responsible for approximately 80,000 deaths annually. Research has demonstrated that members of vulnerable populations, such as sexual minorities, can be at increased risk for hazardous drinking due to a higher prevalence of negative life experiences.

"Dr. Hughes and her colleagues recently reported that sexual minority women had significantly higher odds of hazardous drinking (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23438246). They noted that higher rates of victimization likely contribute to, but do not fully explain, higher rates of hazardous drinking among sexual minority women compared to exclusively heterosexual women.

"Other researchers recently noted that sexual minority veterans are more likely to screen positive for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and alcohol problems than a comparison sample (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23414280).

"Dr. Hughes’ ongoing research will continue to examine how the accumulation of life stressors such as childhood sexual abuse, adult sexual assault, and discrimination based on sexual orientation are related to psychological distress and hazardous drinking in adult women. The findings will have public health implications for identifying groups at greatest risk for hazardous drinking and for developing culturally sensitive prevention and intervention strategies.

"In recognition of her groundbreaking and sustained research on risk and protective factors for sexual minority women’s drinking, Dr. Hughes was inducted into the University of Kentucky College of Nursing’s Hall of Fame in May 2011, making her one of 10 members selected from among more than 50,000 alumni."