Despite using substances at lower levels than men, women typically progress from substance use to addiction more quickly than their male counterparts. Women also experience the health consequences of substance use, such as death, cancer, heart disease and memory problems, sooner and more intensely than men.
Women and Smoking
When it comes to tobacco, women typically smoke fewer cigarettes, inhale less deeply and smoke cigarettes with lower nicotine levels as compared to men. However, women are just as likely as men to become addicted to nicotine. These gender differences can be seen at an early age—in one study, girls ages 12 and 13 who started smoking at least once a month reported symptoms of nicotine dependence in a shorter amount of time compared to boys (21 days vs. 183 days).
Women and Alcohol
Research shows that women metabolize alcohol less efficiently as compared to men. This is because women have decreased activity of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, which breaks down alcohol in the liver and stomach and keeps it from entering the bloodstream. Women’s bodies also contain less water and more fatty tissue than men of similar sizes, which means they maintain higher concentrations of alcohol in their blood. As a result, women get intoxicated faster and have worse hangovers, even when drinking the same amount as men.
Some research suggests that women progress faster than men from alcohol use to addiction. But other studies argue this is found primarily in studies of people who already have been diagnosed with addiction and may be in treatment for it. New findings also suggest that this difference between women and men is less apparent in recent years than in the past because of increasing rates of risky drinking among women and stable or diminishing rates among men.