In a recent research viewpoint article doctors Sugarman and Greenfield discussed the existing alcohol burden in the United States and how it is increasing during the ongoing pandemic. They call for urgent intervention to reduce alcohol consumption and the resulting harm during COVID-19.
Unhealthy coping mechanism
Alcohol harm is at epidemic level in the United States as it is. And with increasing alcohol consumption during the pandemic the harm is further rising. Statistics show addictions, unhealthy habits and coping mechanisms and violence is growing in the country with the pandemic.
Previous research has found that alcohol is used as a coping mechanism by Americans to deal with traumatic events such as terrorist attacks. Furthermore, if a person has alcohol use disorder, they are more likely to use alcohol to cope with the stress of a traumatic event.
Despite advice by the World Health Organization to not use alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with pandemic stressors many Americans are doing so.
Coping with the pandemic through alcohol is specifically harmful as the pandemic causes prolonged trauma compared to a single disaster event. Adding to the stress of possibly becoming infected there are other compounding factors such as job loss, pay cuts, home-schooling children, caring for young children or elders while working from home and the uncertainty of the future. All of these work together to increase stress and anxiety among people. As research has shown this often leads to increased alcohol consumption.
Already data show that Americans are attempting to cope with the pandemic through alcohol use. Previously Movendi International reported a study published by the University of Michigan showing that out of surveyed American adults 28% stated they used alcohol to make themselves feel better during the pandemic. Another study by RTI International found that one in five Americans use alcohol or non prescription drugs to cope with anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Big Alcohol marketing
The alcohol industry is making matters worse by insidiously exploiting the ongoing health crisis to drive alcohol consumption even higher and thus increase their profits. A report by the NCD Alliance and the SPECTRUM Research Consortium has exposed how Big Alcohol along with other unhealthy industries turns COVID-19 into the world’s largest marketing campaign.
Making matters worse
Alcohol is proven to negatively affect the physical and mental health of people. Alcohol causes many non-communicable diseases including liver disease, heart disease and cancer. Alcohol is known to weaken the immune system. As alcohol is a depressant it also affects the mood and can cause more stress, anxiety and depression.
During the ongoing pandemic the harm alcohol causes adds fuel to the fire. For these and many other reasons the WHO has advised to reduce alcohol availability during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures.
The WHO has released psychosocial and mental health guidance for people on healthy coping strategies to deal with the ongoing pandemic.
Recommended interventions to reduce dependence on alcohol during the pandemic
The authors of the article make several suggestions and recommended interventions to reduce alcohol use during the pandemic and decrease long-term harm. These include the following:
- Encouraging people to use alternative healthy coping mechanisms to manage pandemic stress and anxiety.
- Identifying alcohol problems in people early on and intervening.
- Policy solutions for reducing alcohol harm such as seen with telehealth services.
- Public health campaigns to raise awareness on alcohol harm during COVID-19 and suggesting healthy coping mechanisms.
- Increase screening for alcohol problems by primary healthcare providers.
- Use of telehealth for alcohol support services in areas where there are strict lockdown due to higher COVID-19 risk.
- Ensuring people have access to health insurance to cover medical costs, specifically considering most people’s reliance on insurance provided by workplace which may be lost with job loss.
In terms of policy solutions to reduce alcohol harm the WHO recommends the three best buys of increasing taxes, restricting availability and banning alcohol promotions, advertising and sponsorship. These best buys have been proven effective in many countries. Other important interventions are recommended in the WHO SAFER package.
However, in the United States the pandemic has led to weakening of alcohol policy systems in many states by upending laws that regulate alcohol availability and by allowing alcohol delivery and takeaway.