Faces of Public Health: Q&A with Lori Butterfield

Oct 17, 2013, 2:23 PM

Lori Butterfield, writer and producer of 'Lipstick & Liquor' Lori Butterfield, writer and producer of 'Lipstick & Liquor'

Lipstick & Liquor, a recently released documentary, takes a close-up look at a secret that is killing women and harming their families. Excessive alcohol use is the third leading cause of preventable death among women between the ages of 35 and 55. Excessive drinking among women is also a contributing factor in one-third of suicides, one-fourth of accidental deaths and one-half of traffic deaths. Significantly, drinking is more likely to reach advanced stages before it is discovered.

The film, which will launch on iTunes and Amazon.com in December, shares the stories of four women and their struggles with alcoholism. The goal of the film, says Lori Butterfield, the film’s writer and producer as well as a senior vice president of creative content for Home Front Communications, is to help women everywhere shake off the stigma associated with women alcoholics, and to provide understanding and insight into the struggle to stay sober. The documentary includes expert commentary from medical researchers, addiction specialists and authors who shed light on the conditions impacting the increase in alcohol use and abuse among American women.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Lori Butterfield about the film.

NPH: How did the documentary come about?

Lori Butterfield: My interest in raising awareness began with a story about a woman named Diane Schuler. In the summer of 2009, Diane made headlines after killing herself and seven other people while driving the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway in Westchester County, New York. The toxicology report showed that Diane had been drinking and yet her husband and other family members came out very publicly and said, “Oh she would never do that, she was a wonderful mother, she was a perfect wife.” And I remember thinking at the time, how could someone hide their alcoholism so well that their own family had no idea? That story really stuck with me.

Then, in November of that year, I was overseeing a video project for an Ad Council campaign about “Buzzed driving” [see recent Buzzed Driving campaigns from the Ad Council]. That’s when I read a very startling statistic. It said the number of DUI arrests for women had shot up more than 30 percent in the last decade while the rate for men was actually going down. And I also read that binge drinking for women was on the rise, so something was happening, but I wasn’t quite connecting the dots.

And then that holiday season, Julie Kroll’s story appeared in the Washington Post. I’d never met Julie, but when I read about her death, that’s when it really struck me; there are a lot of women suffering out there and the stigma is very real. I started digging deeper and found a double standard for women and an even higher standard for mothers who can’t control their drinking.

NewPublicHealth: What are some of the key issues you found in your research about alcoholism and women?

Butterfield: I found there’s not as much of a conversation happening about alcohol. Abuse of opioids and other prescription and illegal drugs have definitely created havoc in society, but alcohol seems to get a pass sometimes. I think we’ve got an historical and cultural factor contributing to the lack of awareness about the issue. I also think illegal drugs have always been looked at as the big evils, and we’ve seen the big fight against tobacco, and now you’re starting to see opioids and prescription drugs getting a little bit more of a focus. But alcohol, which had its focus during prohibition, is sort of being sidestepped. I think it’s complex.

NPH: What are the key takeaways of the film?

Butterfield: I was really trying to get to the heart of the psychological and societal issues that are driving women to drink at increasing rates. And, surprisingly I learned from researchers at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that women are 12 times more likely to resist treatment than men. Another aspect I’ve learned about is the health and medical issues surrounding this problem. I think so many women do not understand how alcohol can impact not just their day-to-day functioning, but also the link between alcohol and breast cancer rates, the link to heart disease, and to the damage it can cause to the brain, liver and other organs.

NPH: What do you think the health community should do to make it easier for women to access help?

Butterfield: First and foremost, I think primary care health professionals are often not having direct, honest conversations with women coming in for routine checkups, even if they see issues of concern in their blood tests. So the medical community is in denial about it and women are in denial about it.

Secondly, when it comes to giving women access to help, I think the health community is not providing clear direction on the options out there for women. One of the reasons why women resist treatment, quite frankly, is because it’s very expensive to be in private and residential treatment and there’s a stigma in leaving your kids, leaving your job and being labeled an alcoholic. I’ve had women tell me that there is more sympathy if you’re labeled mentally ill than if you’re labeled as an alcoholic.

The health community is doing a disservice by not clearly communicating to women that if they want to get help, there’s a lot of help out there—recovery support groups, outpatient and in-residence treatment, as well as new medications.

And we need to ramp up public service messages. College-age women are targeted with messages, but in the age group I profiled—women between the ages of 35 and 55—alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable death and nobody’s really addressing this issue. And women who are 60 or older are also showing signs of an increase in alcoholism.

NPH: Have you heard from women who are or were closet drinkers about how the film has affected them?

Butterfield: A lot of women who have suffered and who have been in recovery reach out to me and say what a remarkable film this is, particularly women who are in the early stages of their recovery. It seems to somehow really resonate with them and those are the women who are very vulnerable to relapse. So it has been very heartwarming to me that this documentary has been a source of strength for them to say, wow, I saw so much of myself in the four women profiled in the film.

NPH: What other types of viewers have you heard from?

Butterfield: We’ve now premiered the film in many cities and I have heard from women of all ages who are responding to it and I didn’t realize that that was going to happen. I’ve heard from a number of people from universities who say they want to use the film as a part of their course work.  

It’s a valuable resource for everyone. Women in the course of their lives are under so much stress between working and juggling families and trying to be perfect. But when you hit a crisis point in your life, whether it’s a failing marriage or losing a job or the loss of a parent, these are the points in a woman’s life where they are especially vulnerable to addictive behavior and to consuming too much alcohol or taking sleeping pills or whatever, and I think that’s where this film can be really beneficial.

NPH: You have a website, Facebook and Twitter page for the account, which no doubt will vastly improve the opportunity to communicate information about the film and resources for women needing help.

Butterfield: Yes, what’s most exciting about releasing the documentary now is that compared to ten years ago: the conversation can be interactive through digital media. It’s now a two-way conversation. And as someone who wants to move the needle through a visual medium such as films and documentaries, to be able to get that feedback right away from an audience through social media channels, through live event screenings, this has really helped us to better understand what news items, for instance, medical studies and health resources to put out on our Facebook page.

>>Bonus Link: The Lipstick & Liquor website includes valuable resources for women, or their families, dealing with alcoholism.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.