Use of alcohol products in the United States (U.S.) as well as diseases and deaths from the substance has been rising over the past two decades. During the pandemic the negative trend has become even worse with specific groups such as a women being more affected.
Pandemic stressors along with the alcohol industry’s exploitation of the health crisis and the weakening of alcohol policies are the primary reasons for accelerating alcohol harm in the country.

Over the past two decades alcohol and other harmful substances have been taking more and more American lives. But different ethnic groups have been affected differently, with non-hispanic white Americans and especially women affected more.

Reports suggest alcohol consumption increased in the U.S. during COVID-19, but alcohol use has in fact been rising in the country for some time, COVID-19 only added further fuel to the alcohol epidemic in the country.

Dr. Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford who served as a senior policy adviser on drug policy for President Obama lists the following facts to show the products and practices of the alcohol industry place a major burden on U.S. society:

  • Alcohol use is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. 
  • More people die from alcohol every year than from the entire opioid epidemic. 
  • Alcohol accounts for more crime than all other drugs combined.

A study published in JAMA Network revealed that between 2000 to 2016,

  • In terms of ethnicity:
    • The largest increases in alcohol deaths were for American Indian and Alaska Native men and women and white women.
    • Alcohol deaths decreased for black women and men, and Latino men within the period of 2000 to 2013 but then increases occurred between 2013 to 2016.
  • In terms of age group:
    • For white men and women there were large increases in deaths during the middle age group between 50 to 59 years followed by young people between 25 to 34 years.
    • Among American Indian and Alaska Native individuals, increases throughout the age range were observed, with the highest reported among ages 45 to 49 for men and ages 50 to 54 among women.

Deaths driven by alcohol and other harmful substances and liver disease are called “deaths of despair”. The United States has already been experiencing a rise in these types of deaths for a few years, specifically among young people. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to increase these deaths even more.

Exploring reasons for alcohol use issues in different ethnicities

One reason for the increasing alcohol use which drive higher deaths in the U.S. is the pervasive alcohol norm in society. The substance has become normalized despite being a carcinogen which kills one person every three seconds.

Alcohol use has been normalized because it is consumed sometimes at family and communal gatherings, casual outings, and that’s the type of [alcohol use] that is typically seen or showed within the media,” said Yusuf Ransome, an assistant professor at Yale’s School of Public Health, as per The New York Times.

We rarely see the long-term health impacts or acute danger of alcohol.”

Yusuf Ransome, an assistant professor, Yale School of Public Health

Scholars studying the recent trend in alcohol related deaths or “deaths of despair” find it similar to that experienced by  Black Americans living in cities in the 1970s and 1980s. The underlying sources are similar:

  • social and economic stressors including poverty,
  • stagnant or declining incomes,
  • loss of blue-collar jobs, and
  • disintegration of family units.

However, Black Americans face the added issues of racism which leads to worse economic opportunity and health outcomes.

The tendency for Black and Hispanic people to face worse legal, social and health consequences due to alcohol use is one possible reason for the lower alcohol death rates in these ethnic groups comparative to non-Hispanic white people. Additionally Black communities have higher sense of community and religious service attendance which act as protective factors against alcohol harm.

The high rate of alcohol deaths among Native Americans is traced to poverty, family history of alcohol use disorder, availability of alcohol at a younger age and stress from historical trauma

Among Asian-American and Pacific Islander populations, U.S. born people have more alcohol problems than their first-generation immigrant counterparts, suggesting the problems to be arising from cultural assimilation, among other factors. This is also affecting young Hispanic women, who show a rise in alcohol use and have the third-highest rates of female alcohol-related deaths, after Native American and white women.

COVID-19, the alcohol industry and rise in alcohol use

Using alcohol to cope with pandemic stressors has been rising in the U.S. driven by the alcohol industry’s pandemic centric marketing and systematic deregulation of state alcohol policies.

The increase in alcohol use is affecting those facing the highest stress levels. For example a survey of 12,000 physicians, found that more than 40% were experiencing burnout, and out of those, more than a quarter were using alcohol to cope with it. 

Women are the other group mostly affected by pandemic related rise in alcohol use. One study published in October in The Journal of Addiction Medicine found that between February and April 2020, women had higher heavy alcohol use than men. Another study published in the Journal Addictive Behaviors in November, 2020 reported that women were having more alcohol in response to COVID-19 so much so that they were catching up to the level of men’s alcohol use. Women are affected more strongly by the pandemic, possibly due to added childcare responsibilities while balancing work-from home along with other pandemic changes.

This rise is problematic because women’s bodies react differently to alcohol. Since they take longer to metabolize alcohol more is absorbed by the body than for men having the same amount of alcohol.

The consequences are already starting to show with higher numbers of younger women presenting to hospitals with alcoholic liver disease. And a rise in liver cancer deaths among women.

Women have long been a specific target group for the alcohol industry to grow their profits. The alcohol industry uses specific products such as alcopops which are flavored, colorful and more feminine to attract young women to alcohol.

Over the past two decades, underage females were exposed to and suffered the effects of alcohol marketing,” said David Jernigan, professor of health law, policy and management at the Boston University School of Public Health, as per The New York Times.

David Jernigan, professor, health law, policy and management, Boston University School of Public Health

The alcohol industry has been cashing in on the COVID-19 pandemic by marketing alcohol heavily to people as a coping mechanism.

Deregulating and weakening alcohol policy protections

Despite the rise in alcohol use and the behavior of the alcohol industry during the pandemic at least 20 states are considering making permanent the weakened alcohol policy rules they put in place during the pandemic. For example, in New York alcohol businesses started a petition pushing state legislators to continue allowing restaurants to sell alcohol for takeaway. As a result a bill was introduced by Assemblywoman Pat Fahy (D-Albany) to make takeaway alcohol legal for up to two years in New York.

But a groundbreaking report illustrates the problems and perils of weakening alcohol policy protections. The report details the lethal interaction of alcohol industry products and practices with the COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. 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
  2. Alcohol increases the burden on healthcare and emergency services which are already stretched due to the COVID-19.
  3. 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.

The potential repercussions – on everything from individual and public health to poverty, crime and violence, which have previously been associated with the density of alcohol outlets in a given area – from the alcohol industry’s effort to exploit the pandemic and the weakening of alcohol policy protections will unfold in the coming years.

The current data suggest Americans are starting heavier alcohol consumption patterns. For example, Elyse Grossman, policy fellow at Johns Hopkins and lead author of a compelling study on adults’ alcohol use during COVID-19, expects growing negative effects to become apparent one to three years from now.


Sources

The New York Times: “What’s Behind the Growth in Alcohol Consumption?

The New York Times Magazine: “How Bad Is Our Pandemic Drinking Problem?

CBS News: “There’s a growing push to keep to-go alcohol sales going