Adapting to life in the U.S. can increase alcohol consumption among Latinas

As Hispanic or Latino immigrants – that is, individuals of Spanish-speaking origin – adapt to life in the United States, exposure to more favorable drinking norms and significant social stressors may provoke increased alcohol consumption.   Acculturation may especially take its toll on women in this group, called “Latinas.”   A study in the December issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research uses sophisticated data analysis to confirm that Latina women who are highly acculturated to American society tend to drink more than those who are not so highly acculturated.

“It has often been supposed that the process of acculturation is stressful for immigrants, and that immigrants may increase their alcohol consumption in an attempt to cope with acculturative stress,” said Sarah E. Zemore, associate scientist at the Alcohol Research Group and sole author of the study.   “However, this theory has not yet received good empirical support.   Investigators have also suggested that immigrants to the U.S. may be exposed to drinking norms that differ from those of their culture of origin.  That is, immigrants may find that Americans tend to have opinions and habits with regard to alcohol that differ from those they are accustomed to and, as a result, their own opinions and habits may change in the process of adaptation.”

In an effort to examine these theories more closely, Zemore revisited data from the 1995 National Alcohol Survey, utilizing linear and logistic regressions to examine the associations between acculturation and drinking outcomes among 1,586 Latino adults (825 women, 761 men) living in the U.S.   She also explored drinking norms and one form of psychological distress, depressive symptoms, as potential mediators of the association between acculturation and alcohol use.   Scale analyses were used to examine the dimensional structure of the study’s acculturation scale.

“The study found that Latina women who are highly acculturated to American society – that is, women who tend to speak English more than Spanish, associate heavily with Anglos, and feel comfortable in relationships with Anglos – tend to drink more than those who are not so highly acculturated,” said Zemore.   “Specifically, these women are more likely to drink, and tend to drink more if they do drink.”

Conversely, acculturation was unrelated to drinking practices among Latino men.   “The differences between drinking norms in Latino men’s cultures of origins and drinking norms in the U.S. seem to be rather subtle,” explained Zemore.   “Although there may be some differences between Anglos and Latinos in their drinking patterns, broadly speaking, drinking among Latino men is not discouraged as it is among Latina women.  Hence, Latino men may show only minor changes, if any, in drinking attitudes and practices with increasing acculturation to the U.S.”

Zemore said that her analysis also helps to clarify why acculturation is associated with drinking practices among Latina women.  

“The study found evidence that Latina women’s beliefs about how much women should drink are associated with both level of acculturation and volume consumed, and that acculturation seems to influence volume consumed by way of influencing women's beliefs about drinking,” she said.   “It is an intuitive and widely supported finding that people respond to what other people do, that is, to descriptive social norms, and to what other people think one should do, that is, to prescriptive social norms.   People tend to wear what others wear, voice opinions that they think others can agree with, and so on.   Likewise, these findings suggest that immigrants, in the process of adapting to a new culture, will typically respond to the new norms surrounding alcohol by changing their attitudes and behaviors to match.”

Zemore noted that her results may differ from previous studies because of her new methods.   “My analyses for this study have addressed many of the methodological flaws of prior research, and contribute substantially to clarifying the relationship between acculturation and drinking outcomes among Latinos in the U.S.,” she said.   “The findings also highlight drinking norms as one explanatory mechanism underlying the association between acculturation and alcohol consumption among Latina women.   Furthermore, we now see that Latina women can indeed be at risk for alcohol problems, and that this risk may increase with exposure to Anglo culture.  Results suggest that the risk will be greater in communities with pro-drinking norms, which means that the surrounding social environment is an important target for interventions aiming to reduce consumption.”

Zemore added that her findings have implications for other immigrant groups in the U.S. “who may also change their drinking habits in the process of acculturation to match the norms prevalent in the U.S.,” she said.   “This change may be substantial for some, such as those coming from cultures with very different norms, and more minor for others.  The degree of change may also depend on their level of exposure to Anglo culture and various individual- and community-level factors,” she said.  

Funding for this Addiction Science Made Easy project is provided by the Addiction Technology Transfer Center National Office, under the cooperative agreement from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment of SAMHSA.

Articles were written based on the following published research:

Zemore , S.   (December 2005).   Re-examining whether and why acculturation relates to drinking outcomes in a rigorous, national survey of Latinos.   Alcoholism:   Clinical & Experimental Research.   29(12):