DRINKING alcohol, even in small quantities, affects women differently than men. And heavy drinking is much more risky for women than it is for men, according to Malusi Mbanga, a general practitioner and member of an Alcoholics Anonymous support group in Johannesburg.

Recent studies support this view.

Mbanga says women drink in a way that threatens their health, safety, and general wellbeing. He says heavy drinking is riskier for women.

"Women alcoholics suffer more physical, mental and social problems than male alcoholics. Alcoholism has a triple stigma for women. Firstly, women have the general stigma among alcoholics. Then they have the double standard that it's bad enough for a man, but when a woman does it, it is worse. And lastly, there is the belief that a woman alcoholic is a sexually lustful woman."

He says people who start drinking before age 15 have a 40 percent higher risk of becoming alcoholics than those who wait until age 21 to start drinking. This increased risk is the same for young girls as it is for boys. Western Cape has a higher number of women alcoholics in the country. DANGER OF ALCOHOL ABUSE Liver damage is greater in women

Chronic alcohol abuse exacts a greater physical toll on women. Female alcoholics have death rates 50 to 100percent higher than males. Further, a greater percentage of female alcoholics die from suicides, alcohol-related accidents, circulatory disorders and cirrhosis of the liver.l Alcohol abuse increases breast cancer rates

Many studies report that heavy drinking increases the risk of breast cancer. Alcohol is also linked to cancers of the digestive track and of the head and neck (the risk is especially high in smokers who also drink heavily). Mental Disease

Most alcoholics have some loss of mental function, reduced brain size and changes in the function of brain cells. Research suggests that women are more vulnerable than men to alcohol-induced brain damage. l Alcohol abuse increases menstrual problems

Painful menstruation, heavy flow, premenstrual discomfort, and irregular or absent cycles have been associated with chronic heavy drinking. These disorders can have adverse effects on fertility. Continued drinking may lead to early menopause.

Heavy drinking increases a woman's risk of becoming a victim of violence and sexual assault. - Additional info