BRITISH Columbian teens of all sexual orientations are drinking less alcohol compared to youth in the late 1990s, according to a new UBC study that’s one of the first to compare trends in alcohol use among straight and sexual minority youth. But while consumption is down across all groups, it’s declining more slowly for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) teens.
In this Q&A, study senior author and UBC nursing professor Elizabeth Saewyc talks about why the gap persists and what families and communities can do to close it.
Where did you draw your data from and what did your analysis say?
We analyzed data from the B.C. Adolescent Health Survey, a school-based survey by McCreary Centre Society that captured data from almost 100,000 students in grades 7-12 across B.C. The survey was completed every five years across a 15-year span between 1998 and 2013. It covered most school districts across B.C., and a range of ages and sexual orientations, so the results are representative.
Our analysis confirms what we’ve known for some time – that teens are drinking less. The proportion of straight boys who have used alcohol at least once dropped from 66 per cent in 1998 to 45 per cent by 2013. For straight girls, proportions fell from 62 per cent to 44 per cent.
Alcohol use among gay males also dropped, from 73 per cent to 57 per cent. Lesbian girls are also drinking less, although the decline is less marked.
Binge drinking has also dropped, across all sexual orientations. To pick just two examples, the proportion of straight boys who had engaged in heavy drinking had dropped to 18 per cent in 2013, from 29 per cent in the 1998 survey. And 29 per cent of bisexual girls reported recent binge drinking in 2013, compared with 37 per cent in 1998.
But not all the news is good?
No. While alcohol use declined among all groups, it didn’t drop fast enough for LGB teens to narrow the gap with their straight peers. LGB youth still had proportionally higher odds of drinking in every year that data was collected. In 2013, 57 per cent of gay males drank alcohol at least once, compared to 45 per cent of straight boys; 65 per cent of lesbian girls drank, vs. 44 per cent of their straight counterparts.
Binge drinking showed the same disparity. A higher proportion of lesbian girls and gay males reported engaging in binge drinking in 2013 compared to their straight peers.
Why do you think this gap persists?
LGB youth have historically had higher rates of alcohol use than straight youth, largely due to stigma and stress. We’d hoped that the difference had shrunk in light of the increasing social acceptance for LGB people in the past decade.
The results suggest that, in high schools at least, things might be taking longer to change. Stigma and discrimination are still significant challenges for LGB teens, and this is likely fostering alcohol use as a coping strategy. And that’s concerning, because binge drinking has known social and health consequences.
There is some room for hope. Some of our previous research has shown that family support for LGBTQ youth, as well as school connectedness, are linked to lower rates of alcohol use and problem substance use among LGBTQ youth. And other research we’ve done shows that school-based policies and programs like gay-straight alliances lower the odds of binge drinking among both LGB and straight youth. With a growing number of schools supporting such programs across B.C., it’s possible that the next time the B.C. Adolescent Health Survey is conducted, in 2018, we might see further declines in binge drinking, but better still, the gap narrowing between LGBTQ and straight youth.
The paper, “Are alcohol-related disparities between sexual minority and heterosexual youth decreasing?” was published today in Addiction. Jessica Fish, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Centre, led the research. Additional authors include Stephen Russell of the University of Texas at Austin, Ryan Watson of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut and Carolyn Porta of the School of Nursing at the University of Minnesota.