Transcript: Ann Dowsett Johnston: The Modern Woman's Steroid | Aug 19, 2014

Piya sits facing viewers and says
Much is made of the gender gap
in terms of positions of power,
division of labour and salaries.
But there is one realm where
women are closing in on men and
that is alcohol consumption.
Author Ann Dowsett Johnston says
this is a dangerous advance.
And she should know, as she
herself was an alcoholic.
Ann Dowsett Johnston
is here with us now.

Piya says Hi, nice to meet you.

Ann sits facing her and smiles Blonde, in her mid-forties with
a straight nose and high forehead, she wears a
wine-colour polo-neck sweater.

She says Nice to be here.

Piya says This book called "DRINK"
A book appears with the title "Drink" in
boldface circled in red and the author's name.
"Ann Dowsett Johnston."
She continues
it's a courageous book.
It's an important book and
you didn't come to it as just a
really experienced journalist,
you could write about a topic
that is affecting so many
people, so many of us.
You came to it from a
personal point of view.
So, just take me through sort of
the personal experience you had,
your relationship with alcohol.

Ann appears over the caption "Ann Dowsett
Johnston AUTHOR "DRINK" The Modern Woman's Steroid
She says I'm the daughter of the classic
1960s alcoholic who mixed
valium and cocktails,
poster girl for her era.
And sadly I became the
poster girl for my era,
meaning, very professional,
award-winning journalist who
slipped into alcoholism in my
fifties and that is actually the
poster girl now,
meaning she's female,
she's professional,
she's high achieving,
maybe high bottom in my
case, meaning I did not lose
I did not go to jail.
I did not crack up a car but I
realized that I was in trouble
and I realized, luckily, quite
quickly and took myself off to

Piya says You say poster girl because the
stereotype that we have of the
alcohol iS as you know, maybe a
bit of a dead beat passed out on
the couch, can't keep
her family together,
you know drinks all day.
That wasn't you.
You became an alcoholic, you
were an alcoholic while carrying
out a very high-profile job
while showing up at work every
day and doing all those
things that non-alcoholics do.

Ann says Right.
And I think that one thing that
people don't talk about very
often and have a very hard time
believing is that addiction is
very, very slippery and
it is a worthy opponent.
In my case, I drank, I think
more or less like other people
did in my 20s, my
30s and my 40s.
You know, I'd come
home from a big job,
pour myself a
glass of wine, or not,
chop some vegetables, get ready
for a second shift of looking
after my son, et
cetera, overseeing homework.
And all of it was fine until
it wasn't till I had major
depression in my
fifties, menopause.
And I began drinking
much more heavily,
much more quickly and fell down the
bunny hole in about 17 months.
So I think it's a
progressive disease.
It's usually marked by
denial and I did deny it in the
I thought, I can't
possibly be an alcoholic.
I don't drink during the day.
As you say, I didn't
miss work et cetera, et cetera.

Piya interrupts You weren't guzzling a
mickey of vodka at 11 in the

Ann says No.
I wasn't guzzling
a mickey of vodka.
That's the other thing.
I wasn't drinking at the
level that my mother drank and I
wasn't drinking hard
liquor for the most part.
So, I really said
to myself, denial,
"I can't possibly
be an alcoholic."
And it was my son who confronted
me and my partner who both said,
"This is not your
normal behaviour."

Piya says I have to ask 'cause I want to
continue painting this portrait
of the modern day
female alcoholic.
You weren't, as we
say, guzzling booze.
They appear sitting facing each other
Piya continues I mean, were you having a
couple of drinks a day?
What was it?
What was, when you realized,
"Geez, I'm an alcoholic."
I mean, how much
were you drinking?

Ann says I went from two drinks a
day to three drinks a day,
to four drinks a day pretty
fast and woke up one morning.
My cousin had been killed
by a drunk driver and said,
"You know what, I've
lost a lot to alcohol,
I'm not gonna drink tonight."
And instead I had five drinks.
And the next night, I said, "Not
gonna drink tonight and I had
five again."
And I realized I was addicted.
I was not able, when I set my
standards for what I was gonna
do, to limit to one, limit
to two, limit to zero.
I couldn't keep the
promise to myself.
It was a shock to me and I
realized I was addicted to
I was addicted because
of the self-medication.
It numbed
everything and I loved that.

Piya says This book, you know, is not only
about your own story but the
story of--well you
say, so many women,
young women.
And I want to take a
step back and talk about,
you know the '70s and the
feminist movement and how that
really shaped our
attitudes as females,
as feminists towards alcohol.

Ann says I think we have decided that
we can and we can do everything
that men do and we've done
very well in the post-secondary
We outpace men.
We go toe-to-toe
in the workplace.
We all know that.
Democratically we're equal.
Hormonally and
metabolically we're not.
And so what has happened is that
women have gone toe-to-toe with
men vis-à-vis alcohol and we
suffer the consequences much
Telescoping is real, meaning
we become addicted much faster.
We develop breast cancer, 15 percent of
breast cancer cases are related
to alcohol consumption.
And we haven't had a
public dialogue about this.
I'm not saying alcohol's the new
tobacco but I am saying that the
alcohol industry has behaved
like the tobacco industry
targeting women and we
have to be aware of that.

Piya says OK, we're gonna talk about
all those things that you just
pointed out in more depth.
But I want to just stick with
this point that you describe
alcohol as the
modern women's steroid.

Ann says Right.

Piya asks What do you mean by that?

Ann says I mean that it enables us to do
the heavy lifting involved in a
life that has everything,
taxing jobs, motherhood.
We have to be perfect.
We have to be perfectly thin,
we have to be perfect at work,
we have to perfect like our
mothers at home et cetera,
et cetera.
And it's a perfect--it can be
a perfect storm of trouble.
And you come home de-stress with
a glass of wine and decompress
quickly as many, many people do
and usually when I'm talking to
a group of women, they're
all nodding their heads yes,
I pour that glass of
wine when I come from work.
And it's normalized.
We live in an alcogenic
culture and it's normalized.
What's not expected is that it
catches up with you and it caught
up with me.

Piya says Well, I guess
that's the thing, Ann,
is that people
watching this, myself,
we've all gone home
poured a glass of wine and,
you know, as I'm hearing you
or as someone is watching this
saying, "Ann , but I'm not you,
I'm just doing my one or two
glasses a night to cope with
being a mom or you know, just
to relax and just 'cause I like

Ann says Right.

Piya asks What do you say?

Ann says My point would be
twofold: I'd say to you,
look at the long term
and do your counting.
So, if it's two glasses
a night, every night,
you're over the safe drinking
guidelines for Canadian women.
So, 14 glasses doesn't cut it.

Piya says It's 10, right?

Ann says Right.

Ann says So, are you taking a day off?
Are you actually
using it to cope in life?
Can you think of other
things you could be doing,
having a cup of tea,
doing a little yoga.
Often, we're all too busy and
not able to and so that would
be to know why you're drinking.
Are you drinking to numb or
are you drinking just to relax?
You need to know what it is and
you need to be really respectful
of what I will call the opponent
because addiction's real.
Know your family history.
If you have two
alcoholic parents as I did,
you're really 40 percent or
more likely to be addicted.
So know what your risks are.
Know if there's breast
cancer in your family.
Just give it the
respect it's due.

Piya says In your book you talk, you know,
about responsibility and who and
what should be responsible and
you talk about the alcohol
And I want to focus
on that for a minute.
When did the alcohol
industry deliberately decide,
"Hey, we're gonna target women,
this is who we're gonna sell our
goods to"?

Ann says It's a great story.
In the mid-1990s, the spirits
industry was really alarmed
because beer was
cleaning its clock.
Beer was, sports beer, fun
beer was everything and all the
Johnny Walker drinkers
were dying out and they said,
"What are we gonna do?"
And they looked at market
segmentation and they realized a
whole gender was underperforming
and that gender was female.
So they produced alcopops and
alcopops are really chick beer,
starter drinks, cocktails with
training wheels for young girls
to steer them away from
beer towards hard alcohol,
And it was hugely successful.
So, think Mike's Hard
Lemonade, think Smirnoff Ice.
And what it does is, by the
time the young person is,
the young woman
is in university,
she's not drinking
those girly drinks,
those teenage drinks, she's
drinking - she's graduated to
hard liquor.
So you hit a university campus
and young men and women are
playing drinking games.
He's drinking beer; she's
drinking Tequila or vodka.
She's two thirds his size
and she probably hasn't eaten.
It's not an equal
opportunity game.

Piya says It's not just
though, the hard liquor.
There are the wines
that you talk about.
The wine industry really
targeting young women.

Ann says Right.
With names like,
"Mommy's Little Helper."
And Mommy Juice
and Cupcake Wine.
And names I won't
use on television,
really very, very
targeted at women.
French Rabbit even, Cupcake
is - these aren't manly drinks.
Berry-flavoured vodkas et
And you can't blame it all on
Carrie Bradshaw and
Sex in the City, although that had a very
big impact drinking the cosmos
as they did, the women on that
show had a big effect on all
sorts of people
but the message is,
we can go toe-to-toe and we
have our own feminized drinking

Piya says It worked for the
alcohol industry.
I mean it closed the gap.
Women are drinking spirits.

Ann says Totally, and in certain
countries such as the U.K.,
you have men and women now going
totally toe-to-toe and you have
young women in their twenties
dying of end-stage liver
disease, which is classically
thought of as an old man's
Really, upsetting data coming
out of that country in terms of
parity and what that means.

Piya says You spoke about
the influence of a
particular TV show and there are
more that has an influence
on drinking on our culture.
What about social media?
Where has that taken its
strength from in terms of
marketing to women?

Ann says That has played a
huge, huge role.
So what's happened is an
advance in what is known as pull
So -

Piya interrupts Pull marketing
or poll marketing?

Ann says Pull - a pull.
So what happens is,
teenagers sit down,
they want to say check out
Smirnoff or Bacardi and they go
on to Facebook, on to Twitter
and checkout or belong to
certain clubs
et cetera with those brands.
You're not sitting on your
couch waiting for an ad,
turning it off,
watching your favourite show.
You're actually going in an
engaging with the product and
the product becomes a
person who tweets to you,
who talks to you, who
sends you messages.
It's a very kind of, a very,
very different kind of alcohol
marketing and I think
quite, quite dangerous.
Quite, dangerous because
it's engaging a lot of underage
people, a lot of underage
people are drawn to this kind of
community and educating doesn't
really work, therefore people
can't tell whether
you're 15 or 18.

Piya says Young people have always
drunk, university students,
a rite of passage.
I mean, how would
you compare drinking,
I should say, you worked
for Maclean's and you covered
university campuses and did
the ranking for years--you
know university and college
campuses well.
You headed up in McGill.
I mean, you know
this demographic well.
How would you characterize
drinking on university and
college campuses today, 2014,
versus when you were on a campus
as a student?

The caption adds "RISKY CONSEQUENCES"
Ann says Yeah, extreme.
It's become extreme.
So this age group now
doesn't drink and drive but they
They have much more alcohol in
their home environment than they
did when I went to university.
It's expensive to go to the bar,
so what they do is they load up
on vodka or whatever, tequila
before they go to the bar and
they go to the bar
already inebriated.
That is very common.
This is an age group that I'll
give you an example from my alma
mater, Queen's University.
When you're in frosh week, they
take a magic marker and they
write your address, street
address on your forearm because
the presumption is
you will pass out,
you will black out that evening
and nobody will know where to
return you.
This way, your address
is written and some -

Piya interrupts It's a safety
measure, they do that?

Ann says It's a safety measure.
That's scary.
That's scary.
So if you speak to experts
who have been watching student
drinking over the years,
it has become more extreme.
Definitely more women
drinking at a higher level.
We are seeing a rise in
drunkorexia which is a mixture
of eating disorders
and heavy drinking.

Piya says Drunkorexia.

Ann repeats Drunkorexia.

Piya says Anorexia mixed with drunk?

Ann replies Absolutely, which
is very dangerous.

Piya says so What is that?

Ann says That is a mixture of eating
disorders and choosing to put
all your calories in alcohol.
So you don't eat, you drink.
It's efficient drinking.

Piya says OK.
There are those again who may
be watching and would say that
drinking in your
university years,
your college years,
it's a rite of passage.
"Sure, you know, I
binge-drank back then."
It's something
that I grew out of.
It's something
that we just do, Ann.
We grow out of binge drinking."

Ann says Right.
And what's scary now is that the
data shows that people are not
slowing down in their
twenties or their thirties.
So, what I find alarming is
you have the age group of women
between twenty four and thirty six, those who
give birth to roughly sixty percent plus
of Canadian babies are showing
the largest uptick in extreme
drinking, in risky drinking.
That's alarming.
So there used to be a slowing
down in the late twenties for women and
in their thirties women
are not slowing down.
They're not slowing
down in their thirties,
their forties or their fifties.
The experiment has worked.
We live in an alcogenic culture,
we believe we should drink.
It's fair that we drink.
We've been marketed to, the
experiment paid off as I said
and it's alarming.
And there's a whole health
implication that we're just not
discussing on a public level
because I think our values are
very fuzzy around alcohol.

Piya says You talked about
breast cancer rates,
fifteen percent being true.

Ann says Right.

Piya says What are the other
health implications?

Ann replies All the things that happen
to men related to drinking,
cognitive impairment, strokes,
liver disease of course,
many cancers happen, only
they happen faster for women.
We are just less equipped and we
become addicted faster and it is
something we have to talk about
and I think we--because it's a
legal drug, we don't
think of it as a drug.
We think of it as a food group
and something enjoyable and we
haven't discussed
this - and I think, you know,
you mentioned earlier that I
did the rankings of Canadian
There's our values
were very clear.
Parents, Canadian
parents want great education.
They wanted the
rankings of universities.
In this case, why
our values are fuzzy,
I've had people say, women say,
"Would you like to read this
"I just read it, it's terrific."
And their friend
says, "Not really,
I don't want anything
to spoil my drinking."
And I don't find
that surprising.
I think our values
are a little fuzzy.
This is legal, we work
hard, we are stressed,
it's a pleasant thing to do and
I'm not in any way trying to be
a killjoy.
If you can drink safely within
the lower drinking guidelines,
more power to you.
But know what the downside is.

Piya says You mention the health, we were
talking about the health things
and you said, you know, people
see it as a healthy thing.
You know, it's
like dark chocolate.
Have a glass of wine.

Ann says Right.

Piya says It has health benefits.

Ann says Right... right.
It doesn't have the
health benefits that we think.
If you were really
drinking for your health,
you'd have one
drink every two days.
That's not a common habit.
So, that's number one.
We know all the
risks of tanning beds.
We know all the
risks of trans fats.
We should just know, I think,
that this is a little riskier
and more people than I think we
understand fall down that bunny
hole of addiction.
And it is not
amusing when you do.

Piya says I want to talk a little bit
about responsibility and you
talk about it in the book,
not about blame but about
responsibility and who has to
be responsible for this epidemic
that we are seeing in this
But I want to
read you something.
This comes from Emily Yoffe
She wrote this last year.
It has to do with
drinking and sexual assault.
So take a listen to this, Ann.
Here's what she wrote:
Text titled "STOP GETTING DRUNK" appears
in successive frames
Piya reads off it.

She asks Ann, do women
need to be more
responsible when they drink
for the things that may happen
because of drinking?

Ann answeres Yeah, they do.
We need to be conscious.
We need to be conscious and
I know that that was a very
inflammatory article and
there was a lot of backlash and
discussion of it but we have
seen in recent - take the Rehtaeh
Parsons' case.
We have seen so many sad
situations in recent years of
young women putting themselves
in compromising positions
sexually of having
photos on Facebook and then,
in several cases, high-profile
cases, taking their lives.
We need to be aware
of - we need to be conscious.
We need to be conscious.
This is a drug that renders you
unconscious and if you mix it,
for instance, with Red Bull,
which a lot of young people at
university and before are doing,
it produces the wide-awake
That's a
particularly scary image.
Someone who with energy drinks,
drinks far longer than they
should, blacks out
and is still alert.
Very, very odd combination.
So yes, we need to be conscious.
We need to be conscious of
ourselves sexually and aware.

Piya asks And do men need to be
responsible for the problems we
have with female drinking?

Ann says Everyone needs to
be responsible.
Everyone needs to
be responsible.
I'm not letting men off
the hook for what they do.
I'm just saying, all of us do.
All of us do.
Blacking out's a reality.
If you know a person who has
trouble with their alcohol,
you know a person who
has blackout issues.
And blacking out, which is where
I was at the end of my drinking
is scary and it's real and we
need to open up the dialogue,

Piya says I want to ask you
about that because,
I mean, when I was
reading your book,
it was sort of like,
several times I was like,
Oh my goodness, if
this is - and it is true.
If all of what she's saying it
is true then how come we're not
discussing it?
And what the heck
should we be doing?
And so on a macro level, Ann, I
mean what direction should we be
taking in terms of policy when
it comes to trying to curb this


Ann says We should be looking, I think,
very much at the marketing on
So let's use an example.
In nineteen ninety seven, the CRTC stopped
pre-screening alcohol ads.
I mean, that's something
I'd like to ask the Harper
government and I've brought it
up with the Health Minister face
to face and she was
really interested.
Marketing is an issue.
Pricing is an issue.
So the pricing of alcohol,
the accessibility of alcohol.
We're lucky that we have
in most parts of Canada,
we have monopolies and liquor
monopolies but should they
really be putting flyers
in your weekend newspapers?
I'm not talking about
the glossy magazine which has a
lot of food mixed in but really
should there be a flyer
that goes into youroffice
if it's a monopoly?
I don't think so.
Do we need to be exposed to the
kind of marketing on television?
I don't think so.
Do we need to be
aware of the price?
You know from
travelling in the U.S.
or travelling in the U.K.,
alcohol there in both countries
is dirt cheap and it's no
coincidence that you're seeing a
correlation with
more alcohol problems.

Piya says Do we need more taxation?

Ann replies Maybe, maybe.
We need to know where
that--let's put it this way.
We are very aware of
the cash cow of alcohol.
Are we aware of what we
spend on hospitalization,
policing and all the things
that are caused by alcohol
If you do the math, actually
we're spending more on alcohol
issues than we're taking in.
But we're always alert of how
wealthy the LCBO is but we're
not really alert to the costs.
So we're not doing the
math properly as a culture.

Piya says We, nowadays talk a
lot about, you know,
the new face of
feminism, the Lena Dunhams,
the Beyoncés, the
Anne-Marie Slaughters,
"Women can have it all" and I
want to ask you about putting
alcohol and this issue
within that context.
Does this need to be a
feminist issue today?

Ann says I think so.
I think it needs to
be a feminist issue.
I think that we have, have taken
that notion of going toe-to-toe
with men and said, and we can
also go toe-to-toe on alcohol
and I think that a
smart, feminist,
female knows what her - what
the health downsides are,
she wants to remain alert, she
wants to probably enjoy alcohol
when possible but she's aware
of low-risk drinking guidelines.
She's conscious.
There's nothing better
than a conscious woman.

Piya says I guess at the end
of the day though,
Ann, you know, let's be real.
Men and women love to drink.
No one wants to see, you
know, prohibition on alcohol,
not that we're going to,
you write this book to start
changing the conversation
but how do we change the
conversation around drinking?

Ann says I have started something called
the National Roundtable on
Girls, Women and Alcohol and
to open the dialogue around the
policy issues.
The caption changes to "Ann Dowsett Johnson"
AUTHOR "DRINK" Ann continues
I have also been part of the
founding group of something
called Faces and
Voices of Recovery to say,
recovery can look like this.
It's not the man under the
bridge that's swigging from a
brown paper bag but
it can look like this,
a person who has a great life
and pays her taxes and is in
So I think we open the dialogue,
much as people did around the
issues of mental health.
We open the
dialogue around addiction.
We open the dialogue around what
safe drinking guidelines are.
We just opened the dialogue
around the health issues and we
treat it with respect.

Piya says I want to thank you
for writing this book.
It's, again, I go back to - it
was interesting reading it
'cause I thought, "Wow, this
is all true," and yet it's a
conversation we aren't
having at large in society.
So, thank you for writing it.
Thank you for coming in today.

Ann replies Thank you for having me.

Watch: Ann Dowsett Johnston: The Modern Woman's Steroid