A new study published in the JAMA Network Open has found that alcohol use has increased in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic comparative to 2019. Increased alcohol use adds to the already existing heavy alcohol burden in the country and is likely to lead to long-term alcohol harm lasting longer than the pandemic itself.
Pollard and colleagues at RAND conducted the study using data from the organization’s American Life Panel on the alcohol consumption of 1,540 adults ages 30 to 80 years, as measured between April 29 and June 9 of 2019. They followed up with the same group of respondents between May 28 and June 16 of this year to document any changes that may be linked with the pandemic and related lockdowns.
Following are the key findings of the study:
- 14% increase in the overall average number of days that people consumed alcohol in the prior month, from 5.48 days in 2019 to 6.22 days in 2020.
- 17% increase in the average number of days that people consumed alcohol in the prior month reported by women, from 4.58 days in 2019 to 5.36 days in 2020.
- 41% increase in women’s heavy alcohol use – defined as four units of alcohol or more within a couple of hours – from an average 0.44 days in 2019 to 0.62 days in 2020.
- 19% increase in average number of days consuming alcohol in the prior month reported by adults between 30 to 59 years of age, from 4.98 days in 2019 to 5.91 days in 2020.
These findings are similar to that of a survey by the Research Triangle Institute International, reported by Movendi International in August 2020. That survey conducted in May of this year found a 27% increase in average units of alcohol consumed per day per person.
Despite World Health Organization’s advise to not use alcohol as a method to cope during the pandemic, Americans are using this unhealthy coping mechanism. Considering alcohol is a depressant, this only increases existing mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression.
People’s depression increases, anxiety increases, [and] alcohol use is often a way to cope with these feelings. But depression and anxiety are also the outcome of [alcohol use]; it’s this feedback loop where it just exacerbates the problem that it’s trying to address,” said Dr. Michael Pollard, lead author of the study and a sociologist at RAND, as per ABC News.Dr. Michael Pollard, lead author of the study, sociologist at RAND
The evidence from the study supports the existence of this negative feedback loop. Not only alcohol use increased during the pandemic, the study also found that reports of negative experience from alcohol use increased as well.
According to ABC News, respondents were presented with 15 possible negative outcomes and asked to identify which were true for them. From 2019 to 2020, the average number of the 15 questions women responded “yes” to nearly doubled, from two last year to more than three during the pandemic. In 2019, men on average responded “yes” to four of the questions, compared to roughly five in 2020.
The alcohol burden – heavy already before COVID-19
Alcohol harm was a major problem for society in the United States even before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. 93,000 people per year die in the United States from alcohol-related causes, and an average of 255 Americans die each day due to alcohol, according to the CDC.
Movendi International reported in 2019 on the epidemic of alcohol use disorder in the country. Data from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) showed:
- Almost 20 million people in the United States suffer from an alcohol use disorder. This translates to 1 in 12 people suffering from alcohol use disorder.
- 7 million children grow up in families with parental alcohol use disorder.
- More than 50% of adults have a family history of alcohol use disorder.
A research report released by the Well Being Trust and the American Academy of Family Physicians predicts the COVID-19 pandemic could accelerate deaths of despair – deaths from alcohol harm and drug overdoses, suicides, and liver disease – in the United States.
Experts have warned that the United States could experience a tidal wave of substance use and mental health disorders in the long-term, resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health experts are anticipating a steep rise in alcohol harm, opioid abuse, suicides, domestic violence and depression that could rival the toll from COVID-19 itself.
The problem is exacerbated by the vast funding gap for substance use and mental health support services which are at risk of closing down due to further spending cuts. For example, the state of New York cut funding to alcohol and other drug treatment programs – which were already underfunded – by 31% in July, 2020.
Alcohol policy weakening increases alcohol harm
The current situation of the alcohol policy system in the United States is making matters even worse. Back in December 2019, Congress extended a major tax break for the alcohol industry which was initially approved in 2017. The one year extension is estimated to cost the government a total of $1.2 billion. This is revenue that could have been used to invest in the health and development of people and communities, specifically during the pandemic.
Even during COVID-19 the alcohol industry has been using the pandemic to weaken alcohol policy systems in many states across the country. According to a Movendi International analysis, numerous states have weakened alcohol delivery and alcohol take away rules and instituted other measures that undermine existing alcohol laws. These states are Alaska, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin.
This avalanche of alcohol policy deregulation has come despite the urging of doctors and women’s shelter operators to ban alcohol sales during COVID-19 lockdown due to alcohol’s negative effects on health and rising violence fueled by alcohol.
The weakening of alcohol laws across the country makes alcohol more affordable as well as available in communities and is thus fueling rising consumption and related harm.
But reducing alcohol affordability such as through increased taxes and regulating alcohol availability such as through limiting retail hours and outlet density are proven measures to reduce alcohol harm as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO has in fact specifically advised to limit access to alcohol during COVID-19 and lockdown.
[This article was updated with new information from ABC News on October 5th, 2020]