The alcohol industry perversely used the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis as the largest global marketing campaign to drive consumption even higher and increase their profits at the cost of people’s health and even lives.
The alcohol industry has also been exposed for the four distinct tactics they are using to target vulnerable people during coronavirus.
Rising alcohol harm in the United States
Alcohol sales have risen in the USA during the pandemic. A study published in JAMA Network found that alcohol sales rose by 14% in spring 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019. Another study from researchers at the RAND corporation found that alcohol consumption rose almost 30% during the pandemic, compared to a few months before.
In a compelling guest expert blog on the Movendi International blog portal, Alicia Sparks explained in October 2020 the changes in alcohol use behavior during COVID-19 that have been identified and what effects the deregulation of alcohol laws is having.
As the U.S. battles a global pandemic, it faces an accelerating public health crisis: increasing alcohol use and related harms. It’s a particularly harmful side effect of shelter in place orders but also fueled by political decisions to weaken alcohol policies.
Big Alcohol’s products and practices fuel harm
The alcohol industry preys on the challenges faced by people due to the pandemic such as lack of a routine, increased stress, anxiety and disruption to social life, in order to market alcohol as a coping method.
The negative effects of Big Alcohol’s strategy are already apparent. An increasing number of people below the age of 40 in the United States are presenting at hospitals with alcoholic liver disease.
Alcohol related liver disease was already a problem in the US before the pandemic, with 15 million Americans diagnosed with the condition and a doubling of hospitalizations over the past decade. But the situation has now worsened. For example, admissions for alcoholic liver disease at Keck Hospital of the University of South Carolina were up 30% in 2020 compared with 2019 according to Dr. Brian Lee, a transplant hepatologist who treats the condition. Similarly, specialists at hospitals affiliated with the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, Harvard University and Mount Sinai Health System in New York City reported that rates of admissions for alcoholic liver disease have increased by up to 50% since March 2020.
Young adults and women at higher risk
Young adults and women have been facing higher pressures during the pandemic.
Young adults who may be starting new families, entry level employment and trying to buy a house have been hit economically due to the effects of the pandemic.
Women face lower wages, lower job stability and the burdens of parenting which would have been aggravated due to the pandemic. For women there is an even higher risk from alcohol as women’s bodies metabolize alcohol at slower rates than men. Lower levels of the enzyme responsible for breaking down ethanol leads to higher levels of the toxin in the blood and, in turn, more extensive organ damage in women compared with men.
Perversely, young adults and women are two specific target groups of the alcohol industry for marketing their products.
American lives at risk: Need for improved alcohol policy solutions
More than 1 in 20 patients with alcohol-related liver failure die before leaving the hospital, and alcohol-related liver disease is the leading cause for transplantation.
There is an urgent need for prioritization of alcohol policy development by the US federal government to reduce alcohol harm, such as liver cirrhosis, and to raise more revenue to invest in healthcare services, for example to better treat and care for patients with alcohol-related liver disease.
An area of policy worth prioritization is alcohol taxation. A recent study from Boston University School of Public Health published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found inflation had reduced American alcohol tax rates by 70% since 1933. Despite this, in December 2019, the United States Congress incentivized the alcohol industry by extending the major tax break granted in 2017 to the alcohol industry, losing billions of dollars in government revenue that could better be invested in healthcare and health promotion.
Alcohol taxation is one of the three Best Buy alcohol policy solutions recommended by the World Health Organization. The other two policy measures include reducing alcohol availability and advertising bans.
For further reading
Insider: “Millennials are irreparably damaging their livers as Americans drink more alcohol, doctors say“
Los Angeles Times: “As alcohol abuse rises amid pandemic, hospitals see a wave of deadly liver disease“