Secrets in the Bottle


Behind the flash ads for alcohol, there’s a shocking downside. John Ashton pulls the cork, letting a genie out of the bottle.

There’s a chasm between what glitzy ads say and the effects of alcohol on our bodies and communities. Be assured, our young men and women whose minds and desires are being targeted by the carefully orchestrated media campaigns aren’t being told the life-shattering secrets of alcohol. They’re not being told, for example, that alcohol has the potential to actually feminise men.
Contrary to the macho images portrayed, the more alcohol a man drinks the less of the maleness hormone—testosterone—his body produces! In fact, alcohol stimulates the liver to produce an enzyme that converts the male hormone testosterone into the female hormone, oestrogen. It’s why males who drink heavily can develop breasts, lose hair and develop feminine patterns of fat deposition.

Did anyone ever tell you about this effect of alcohol? Not likely. But the feminisation effect of alcohol has been known for years. And why weren’t you told?

There’s a lot more to the dark side of alcohol. Studies of female rats, given alcohol during pregnancy, produced feminised male offspring. In one experiment adult male offspring of mothers who’d consumed either an alcohol-free diet or one containing 5 per cent alcohol were released nearby to a caged receptive female and a caged male.

Rats from the alcohol-free control group devoted 29 per cent of their time to the female and 13 per cent to the male, whereas rats from the alcohol-exposed mothers devoted an equal 20 per cent to both the male and female. Recent animal studies confirm prenatal alcohol exposure can produce abnormal sexual behaviour, possibly explained by a testosterone mechanism.

Alcohol consumption during a human pregnancy can lead to the symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in the child. These can include malformation of organs, including the heart, central nervous system, genitals and brain. In fact, for almost 20 years it has been recognised that FAS is the leading cause of intellectual impairment in Western culture.

Young, drinking males are not immune from fathering deformed offspring either. As far back as the early 1930s (in a handbook for mothers-to-be, All About the Baby) Dr Belle Wood Comstock observed that children of alcoholic fathers often showed various signs of both mental and physical degeneracy. Her suggested explanation was the almost unbelievable supposition that alcohol in the blood poisoned the sperm of prospective fathers. In February 1991, 60 years later, Dr Gladys Friedler, of the Boston University School of Medicine, reported to the American Association for the Advancement of Science that paternal exposure to alcohol had been found to affect the growth and development of the baby.

Animal and human studies show that alcohol does damage sperm, decreasing the sperm count and causing testicularatrophy.

While paradoxically it’s been known for years that alcohol causes impotence in men and delayed satisfaction in women, the alcohol industry has diverted attention by capitalising on our natural interest in sex and the role alcohol plays in seduction by reducing inhibitions. Their advertisements imply an association between alcohol and sexual success; they’ve diverted our attention from the impotence effect.

Advertisements for beer and alcohol are everywhere, on television, in magazines and on billboards. Most films portray drinking as everyday living for all adults. Its bottom-line message is that drinking is a wonderful part of life, and if you’re not doing it, you’re foolishly missing out.

Manufacturers spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year researching and producing the messages and images to persuade us to buy. Some of our cleverest and highest paid minds are employed to start young people drinking alcohol. They know that for many, once started, they’ll be customers for life.
Because of the amount spent on research, usually the advertising campaigns are highly successful. For example, in Australia between 1993 and 2001, alcohol consumption in the general community increased by 10 per cent on top of the already high levels. Young women in particular were targeted by the beverage industry in the early 1990s, and through the promotion of discounted drinks to women and the development of fruit juice and cordial cocktails, which appeal to the female palate, female drinking rates soared.

The Women’s Health Australia Study (1996) found that of the 14,762 women aged 18-23 years surveyed, 70 per cent reported engaging in binge drinking, with 25 per cent doing so weekly. Only 9 per cent were non-drinkers. The alcohol industry had successfully converted thousands of women into drinkers, and most then went on to drink at harmful levels by their own choice.

One of the not-so-hidden snares of the alcohol–sex connection is that alcohol facilitates casual sex before marriage, a practice that exposes young people to the very high risk of contracting an insidious disease, Chlamydia trachomatis (CT), which is sexually transmitted. The disease may present no obvious physical symptoms and yet have very serious long-term consequences if left untreated. Young females are particularly vulnerable to an ascending infection, which can result in pelvic inflammatory disease, which in turn may lead to tubal infertility. The disease can also make men sterile.

And despite the “safe sex” education programs encouraging the use of condoms, condoms offer relatively little protection against the spread of CT. An estimated 25 per cent of sexually active young people in Western countries like Australia, New Zealand and the United States are infected. Few teenagers realise that even if they use a condom, they still have a relatively high chance of becoming infected with CT and that they may end up unable to have children.

The care and treatment of this and other such diseases is a considerable burden on the health-care system and continues into adulthood. This is an example of a largely hidden social and financial cost, which is not usually included in the figures for the overall cost of alcohol to the community.

Promoting the “heart health” benefit of alcohol is another strategy used by alcohol marketeers. Articles in newspapers and magazines are often extolling the latest “health” findings of beer and wine, particularly red wines, which do afford some protection against heart disease. In the context of very moderate drinking, the claims are probably true. But against this, there are never articles describing how even moderate drinking can cause a significant increased risk of cancer, particularly breast cancer.

Hundreds of studies link alcohol consumption with an increased risk for a number of serious cancer types. Furthermore, alcohol, even in modest amounts, also increases the risk of stroke. On balance, this beverage is far from benign in terms of its health effects. Nor is it benign in terms of social effects.

High Social Impact

We are well informed as to the link between alcohol and road accidents. But the social side to alcohol is much darker. Alcohol is also a contributing factor in violent crime. Among its most devastating aspects is as it relates to crimes against women—rape and domestic violence. In the US, estimates of sexual assault suggest that 25 per cent of American women have experienced sexual assault, with approximately half of the cases involving alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, the victim or both.

Alcohol is estimated to be involved in about 50 per cent of all incidents of domestic violence. In a survey of more than 2000 US couples, rates of domestic violence were almost 15 times higher in households where the husbands were often drunk as compared with never drunk. Recent US Department of Justice statistics reveal a similar picture of alcohol’s involvement in intimate partner violence. Two-thirds of victims abused by a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend reported that alcohol had been a factor, and about half of alcohol-related violence incidents reported to police involved current or former spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends of the offenders.

Alcohol does not cause domestic violence, but it facilitates it, acting as a powerful disinhibitor by unlocking deeper feelings and frustrations. Strong evidence for the disinhibiting role alcohol plays in domestic violence comes from a study by the Research Institute on Addictions at the University of Buffalo (2003).

The study of 270 men with a predisposition for physical violence toward their partners found that on days when they drank alcohol they were eight times more likely to be violent toward their partner than when they’d consumed no alcohol. Moreover, on days of heavy drinking—that is, drinking six or more drinks within a 24-hour period—the chance of male-to-female partner violence was 18 times higher.

These are just some of the ill effects of alcohol. There are many more.

Wine is a mocker,” says the Bible, but that’s not a slogan you’ll hear soon in any slick TV commercial.

Dr John F Ashton is co-author of Uncorked! The Hidden Hazards of Alcohol, published by Signs Publishing Company, publishers of Signs of the Times magazine.
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