The COVID-19 pandemic has brought focus to the importance of health and well-being of people and communities as well as resilience of health systems. Unfortunately in the United States (U.S.) alcohol use is rising due to the products and practices of the alcohol industry.
Alcohol and other substance use problems are increasingly threatening the health and well-being of people in the United States (U.S.). The products and practices of the alcohol industry were already before the pandemic causing serious health and social harms. But those are further accelerating and could last longer than the pandemic itself. Big Alcohol’s strategies of marketing their products as coping tools during such a difficult time, and their deregulation agenda, have led to a dangerous rise in alcohol use and resulting problems in the U.S.
By prioritizing alcohol policy solutions such as health taxes the federal government can sustainably “build back better” in 2021 and beyond.

Good health has become ever more precious in today’s world ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. But in the United States health is worsening due to rising alcohol use, specifically during the ongoing health crisis.

The practices of the alcohol industry keep driving rising alcohol sales in the U.S. 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. Rising alcohol sales is a bad deal for society, but a good deal for Big Alcohol.

The Distilled Spirits Council of United States (DISCUS) reported recently that liquor supplier revenues were up 7.7% in 2020. This is the biggest percentage increase in 18 years and the biggest dollar increase on record. Increasing alcohol sales is a trend driven by the alcohol industry during the pandemic and seen across the industry categories liquor, beer and wine. Notably, pre-mixed cocktails rose in sales the most.

Rising alcohol sales us fueling multiple alcohol harms.

Americans’ health threatened by alcohol harm

New studies show that more and more workers are experiencing alcohol and other substance use problems. Versta Research conducted the 2020 Behavioral Health Pandemic Impact study on behalf of The Standard, surveying 1,425 full-time employees in the U.S. and found:

  • 49% of American workers were suffering from alcohol or some other substance use disorder,
  • 36% of them report their alcohol and substance use problems are affecting their work more since the coronavirus broke out, and
  • Alcohol is the most common harmful substance for American workers.

Movendi International reporting has been documenting the dangerous rise of alcohol use disorder numbers in the country. A study published in Psychiatry Research found that among nearly 6000 Americans studied across six months, those under lockdown had a 200% increase in heavy alcohol use. 

The adverse effects of increasing alcohol consumption are also becoming ever more apparent in other sectors of American society. As Movendi International reported previously, a growing number of people below the age of 40 is presenting at hospitals with alcoholic liver disease. The American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD) reports a 30 to 50% increase in the number of hospitalizations and deaths caused by alcohol-related liver disease over the past year.

Rising cases of hospitalizations, deaths due to alcohol-related liver disease
The American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD) reports a 30 to 50% increases in the number of hospitalizations and deaths caused by alcohol-related liver disease over the past year.
American workers suffer from alcohol or other substance use disorder
49% of surveyed American workers are suffering from alcohol or other substance use disorder, according to the 2020 Behavioral Health Pandemic Impact study.

Some alcoholic liver diseases take years to develop such as cirrhosis. This condition has been on the rise anyway in the U.S. over the past decade. Other diseases, such as alcoholic hepatitis, take a shorter time to develop. Women and young people are increasingly presenting with this condition since the pandemic began. In general, women and young people are disproportionately more affected by alcoholic liver disease than in the past.

In general, women are differently affected by alcohol due to the way their bodies biologically process the substance. Women also have specifically higher risks from alcohol such as breast cancer. A fact often hidden by the alcohol industry.

report released by the Well Being Trust and the American Academy of Family Physicians predicted the COVID-19 pandemic could accelerate deaths of despair in the United States. Deaths of despair are deaths primarily caused by alcohol products and other drug overdoses, suicides, and liver disease. 

The deaths of despair problem is further aggravated by serious gaps in the provision of healthcare services for people. The current level of provision of treatment services for people experiencing alcohol problems is way short of need and is further strained by COVID-19.

Why is alcohol harm rising in the U.S. during the pandemic?

The pandemic has been traumatic for many people. And unlike other traumatic events, it has been and is a prolonged disaster. In addition to the fear of infection with a deadly virus, people are dealing with many related anxieties and stressors. These include, job loss, pay cuts, managing work from home and increased childcare and eldercare responsibilities. One CDC study found that 16.5% of parents with a child below the age of 12 years in virtual schooling reported increased alcohol and other substance use. Increased levels of stress is especially the case for women.

Women have taken part of the brunt of the stress of this pandemic from child care to trying to work,” said Dr. Rita German, a UW Heath transplant hepatologist, as per Fox6 Milwaukee.

Dr. Rita German, UW Heath transplant hepatologist

There has also been an increase in loneliness and loss of connection due to stay at home orders and physical distancing measures. Since connection is key to recovery some have fallen off their recovery journey due to isolation.

Added to the pandemic civil unrest and political upheaval in the country also increased Americans’ stress and fear.

The alcohol industry used this time of heightened vulnerability in people to market alcohol as a coping tool, thus driving higher sales and profits for the industry at the cost of Americans’ health. A report by the NCD Alliance and the SPECTRUM Research Consortium exposed how the alcohol industry exploited the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis as the largest global marketing campaign. In addition to aggressive marketing tactics that promote alcohol as coping tool, as healthy and that make alcohol visible around the clock, Big Alcohol also exploits the pandemic to push their deregulation agenda to weaken alcohol policy.

A groundbreaking report explores the lethal interaction alcohol industry products and practices have with the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Alcohol increases the health and societal problems arising from the pandemic. For example, alcohol weakens the immune system and makes people more susceptible to infections. And alcohol-centric social contexts have been COVID-19 super spreader events. The recent incident with spring breakers in Miami is one example.
  • Alcohol increases the burden on healthcare and emergency services which are already stretched due to the COVID-19.
  • The alcohol industry exploits the pandemic to change alcohol laws to their benefit. According to a Movendi International analysis, the alcohol industry has pushed and succeeded in weakening alcohol laws including on alcohol delivery and alcohol take away in numerous states. These states include Alaska, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Vermont or Wisconsin.

What can be done?

Support for alcohol and other substance use issues

For people already suffering from alcohol problems help is available via virtual support groups, communities and recovery programs. One example is the popular app called Cutback Coach, which helps people to track alcohol intake and set goals to reduce or quit alcohol consumption.

The one good thing that has come out of the pandemic is that a lot of things can be done virtually. People can have virtual AA and counseling sessions,” said Dr. Rita German, as per Fox6 Milwaukee.

There’s a lot more resources available to people even now, and we want people to realize this is a disease like any other and we want them to come to us for help.”

Dr. Rita German, UW Heath transplant hepatologist

Concerning people with liver damage, help is available, too. At early stages it is completely reversible by going alcohol-free. Even in advanced stages a lot can be improved through an alcohol-free way of life. It is important that primary healthcare providers identify alcohol problems in their patients and refer them to services. Access to services is another necessity.

Workplaces can help employees with their alcohol and other substance use problems, too. For instance, Business Wire suggests offering access to early intervention and treatment programs or making reasonable accommodations for employees, including stay-at-work and return-to-work services.

When an employee is living with a substance use issue, oftentimes a job is something positive to hold onto, and one of the strongest sources of support and encouragement can come from an employer,” said Dr. Dan Jolivet, Workplace Possibilities practice consultant at The Standard, as per Business Wire.

Dr. Dan Jolivet, Workplace Possibilities practice consultant, The Standard

At the same time demand has heavily increased in treatment centers across the country. For example, Driftwood Recovery, an addiction and mental health rehabilitation center in Texas, has had so many requests for treatment this past year that it has a two-month waiting list. This suggests there is a need to increase treatment service capacity in the country.

Policy solutions

The federal government can protect Americans’ from the harm caused by the alcohol industry specifically in the context of COVID-19, by prioritizing alcohol policy solutions. This includes increasing taxes on alcohol which reduces affordability and at the same time increases government funds for investment in treatment services for alcohol issues and health promotion initiatives in general.

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. Together the best buys form a comprehensive package which would – if implemented – improve population health and well-being towards “building back better” in 2021 and beyond.


Business Wire: “49% of U.S. Workers Are Struggling with Alcohol and Substance Abuse

ABC News: “Alcohol-related liver disease on the rise among young women amid increased pandemic drinking

FOX6 Milwaukee: “Health experts see increase in liver disease, alcohol use

Partnership to End Addiction: “Parents of Students in Hybrid Learning More Likely to Report Increased Substance Use

Bloomberg: “Wow, We Sure Drank a Lot Last Year

KJZZ: “COVID-19 Lockdowns Linked To Rising, Dangerous Alcohol Use

New York Times: “Excessive Drinking Rose During the Pandemic. Here Are Ways to Cut Back.

My Central Jersey: “Alcoholism remains top substance use issue for youth | Parentally Speaking