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Female-targeted advertising, UW-Madison drinking culture factors in high female alcohol death rates

MADISON (WKOW) -- For more women than ever, the cost of binge drinking is their life.

With the increasing pervasiveness of alcohol, the rate of drinking-related deaths has steadily grown over the last two decades. But a new study shows that deaths among women have seen the biggest spike.

Between 1999 and 2017, the female death rate rose 85 percent, compared to 35 percent among men and 51 percent overall, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The Wisconsin alcohol death rate grew even more quickly. As one of the heaviest drinking states in the country, Wisconsin has higher rates of binge drinking and alcohol deaths than national averages, more than doubling its death rate since 1999, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum. Each study takes into account population growth.

Binge drinking among women is a major contributor to this trend. 2019 County Health Rankings show Dane County as the worst in the state, and the alcohol culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in particular (named top drinking school by the Princeton Review) encourages excessive alcohol use among students.

But there are groups working to change that. The Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project is an organization that provides UW students education and resources about the long-term, sometimes irreversible consequences of heavy drinking.

Its coordinator, Julia Sherman, said four factors are at play when it comes to alcohol consumption: how available alcohol is, how affordable it is, how attractive it is and how acceptable it is.

Wisconsin, with one of the highest alcohol density rates and lowest alcohol tax rates in the country, makes it easy to drink -- and to drink a lot.

For women, those factors compound on a culture shift that has made it not only more acceptable but more attractive to drink. Female-targeted advertising, Sherman said, has been especially effective.

"Girls just actually see a lot more alcohol advertising than boys, and there are brands that are developed specifically to target women: Little Black Dress, Skinnygirl," she said. "I don't know a man that would be touching something named Skinnygirl Margarita or Skinnygirl brand."

Retail chain Cost Plus World Market has begun selling Hello Kitty wine, which Sherman said was located in the same aisle area as toys and candy at its Middleton location. When she confronted a clerk about marketing alcohol to children, she was told that that was the placement requested by the brand manufacturer.

"Those all reach out to women and young girls and say 'Hey, this is what bright, smart, successful women do,'" Sherman said.

It's reminiscent of the tobacco industry. Tapping into the market of young women is lucrative and introduces an entire array of new products to sell like cigarettes to promote weight loss and sweetened, fruit-flavored alcoholic beverages.

"A lot of doors opened for women in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and waiting in the doorway of those new open doors was the alcohol and tobacco industry," Sherman said.

But the deluge of advertising targeting women has come at a cost. In the case of both alcohol and tobacco, that cost has been deadly.

When what is driving excessive alcohol consumption is so entrenched, rooted in widespread advertising campaigns, permeating media and established social norms, it can be difficult to see how one organization or one person can make a difference. But Sherman insisted that by starting at the local level, through education of students and communities, change is possible.

"We are more powerful, especially locally, than we realize," she said. "Now we simply have to tell ourselves there is a lot we can do about alcohol advertising, alcohol's reach to children and the public health and safety of our girls ... and our boys."

For more information on the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project and for additional alcohol-related resources, visit

Sarah McGrew

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