Pathways to Substance Abuse Among Young Women Ages 8-22 | CASAColumbia

The Formative Years: Pathways to Substance Abuse among Girls and Young Women Ages 8-22

The Formative Years: Pathways to Substance Abuse among Girls and Young Women Ages 8-22

Published: February 2003

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This report analyzes the characteristics of girls and young women who abuse substances during their high-risk formative years and the impact of this substance use on their lives. Early experimentation with substances can increase the likelihood of addiction in girls and young women. The report examines the reasons girls may use substances—family circumstances, personality traits, childhood experiences, biology, the influences of friends and peers, the communities where they live and the advertising and media messages that bombard them. It describes the effects of substance use on key transition periods in a girl’s life, such as moving from middle to high school and high school to college, and physiological and emotional transitions experienced during puberty and throughout adolescence. Most importantly, it reveals vital opportunities for prevention and intervention during these key transitions.


CASAColumbia’s work for this report involved:

  • Focus groups with preadolescent girls ages 8 to 12 and with their parents
  • A unique two-part national survey of 1,220 girls and young women passing from elementary to middle school, middle to high school, high school to college, and college into the world beyond
  • Analyses of data from three national data sets
  • Examination of the impact of a wide variety of programs and policies on preventing and treating substance abuse among girls and young women
  • A review of more than 1,000 publications


The report found that girls and young women use cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs for different reasons than boys and that they are more vulnerable than boys to substance abuse and addiction and its consequences. Despite recent declines in youth substance use, 45% of high school girls reported drinking alcohol, more than one-fourth reported both current cigarette smoking and binge drinking, and 20% reported using marijuana. Puberty was found to be a time of higher risk for girls than for boys, and girls who experienced early puberty were at higher risk of using substances sooner, more often and in greater quantities than their later-maturing peers. Girls were more likely than boys to report being depressed, having eating disorders or being sexually or physically abused—all of which increase the risk for substance abuse. The report found that substance use can turn into abuse and addiction more quickly for girls and young women than for boys and young men, even when they use the same amount or less of a substance.


The report recommends that prevention programs target girls at times of highest risk and be sensitive to the reasons why girls use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs; how they get them; and conditions such as depression that increase their risk. Also, health professionals should screen young female patients for substance use, depression, sexual and physical abuse, poor school performance, eating disorders and stress, and provide appropriate referrals. Governments should invest resources in research, prevention and treatment that focus on the special needs of girls and women.

The media should refrain from presenting glamorous images of women smoking or drinking, as well as from making positive associations between smoking or drinking and thinness or sex appeal; refuse to accept alcohol advertisements for television and for magazines with high proportions of young female readers; and include more programming and articles that convey prevention messages against smoking, drinking, using drugs and excessive dieting.

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