Living through the COVID-19 pandemic, people are now more than ever placing their health and well-being at high priority. Everyone wants to enjoy a healthy life without diseases and in complete physical, mental and social well-being.
But the products and practices of the alcohol industry pose a serious threat to good health and well-being for all people – even more so now during the public health crisis. Alcohol weakens the human immune system. Alcohol is also a major risk factor for non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Both these factors make people more vulnerable to diseases and more severe progressions of diseases, including COVID-19. The products and practices of the alcohol industry fuel death and disease and interact lethally with the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, alcohol-related deaths in the United States (U.S.) have been rising rapidly during the pandemic. According to latest findings from a brand new study, alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. increased by about 25% from 2019 to 2020.
This is a sharp rise from the 2.2% average annual percent increase in alcohol-related deaths between 1999 and 2017.
The study by White and colleagues was published on JAMA Network. The researchers examined death certificate data from the National Center for Health Statistics. They compared the numbers and rates of alcohol-related and all-cause deaths among all individuals 16 years or older in 2019 and 2020.
Key findings of the study
- The number of deaths involving alcohol increased between 2019 and 2020 by 25.5% (from 78,927 to 99,017).
- The age-adjusted rate increased by 25.9% (from 27.3 to 34.4 per 100,000).
- Comparatively, deaths from all causes had smaller relative increases in number (from 2,823,460 to 3,353,547 [18.8%]) and rate (from 938.3 to 1094.3 per 100,000 [16.6%]).
- Alcohol-related deaths accounted for 2.8% of all deaths in 2019 and 3.0% in 2020.
- Alcohol-related death rates increased for all age groups.
- The largest increases were among people aged 35 to 44 years (from 22.9 to 32.0 per 100,000 [39.7%]) and 25 to 34 years (from 11.8 to 16.1 per 100,000 [37.0%]).
- Increases in alcohol-related death rates were similar for women (from 13.7 to 17.5 per 100,000 [27.3%]) and men (from 42.1 to 52.6 per 100,000 [25.1%]).
- The number of deaths with an underlying cause of alcohol-associated liver diseases increased from 24,106 to 29,504 (22.4%).
- The number of deaths with an underlying cause of alcohol-related mental and behavioral disorders increased from 11,261 to 15,211 (35.1%).
- Opioid overdose deaths involving alcohol as a contributing cause increased from 8503 to 11,969 (40.8%).
- Deaths in which alcohol contributed to overdoses specifically on synthetic opioids other than methadone (eg, fentanyl) increased from 6302 to 10 032 (59.2%).
Additionally, the researchers analysed the provisional death certificate data for the first half of 2021. They report that January 2021 was the month with the highest number of alcohol-related deaths between January 2019 and June 2021. This indicates the problem could be having long lasting effects on the people and society in the U.S.
Why are alcohol-related deaths rising in the U.S. during COVID-19?
The products and practices of the alcohol industry have been driving higher alcohol use in the U.S. during the pandemic. One of the many cascading problems caused by this increasing use is higher alcohol-related deaths.
As Movendi International previously reported, the alcohol industry has been exploiting the pandemic to drive sales and profits. Pandemic-centric marketing, such as by promoting alcohol use to cope with pandemic stressors, has been particularly harmful.
Not only marketing, the alcohol alcohol industry also deploys other strategies to exploit the pandemic for profit maximization. For example, Big Alcohol has relentlessly lobbied to weaken U.S. state alcohol laws. A direct result of Big Alcohol lobbying pressure is that almost every U.S. federal state has weakened alcohol laws in 2020, according to Boston University researchers.
- In the beginning of the pandemic, 31 states included cocktails-to-go as a temporary measure.
- In 15 states the measure was extended by two to five years.
- Another 16 states made cocktails-to-go a permanent law.
- At least nine states passed laws allowing direct home delivery of alcohol.
All but three of the 50 federal states gave liquor stores a lockdown exemption, many classifying the businesses – along with grocery stores and pharmacies – as a COVID-19 essential service. Weakened laws on alcohol delivery and open containers have made alcohol products more available in communities.
The alcohol industry’s pandemic-centric marketing and lobbying to weaken alcohol policies led to increased availability of alcohol products in the U.S. More availability means more consumption and increasing alcohol harms for communities. It also means more profits for alcohol companies.
- Alcohol consumption increased by 14% in 2020 compared to 2019, as per a JAMA Network Journal study from September 2020.
- A recent study by RAND published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that alcohol use problems increased among both men and women (69% and 49%) respectively.
- “Using alcohol to cope” was associated with an initial higher level of alcohol problems for both men and women.
The rise in alcohol-related deaths reported in the above study adds to the wide ranging negative effects caused by rising alcohol use during COVID-19. Other consequences include,
- Increased consumption and disproportionate harm on women,
- Increased heavy alcohol use, which can lead to more alcohol problems,
- A growing number of people below the age of 40 is presenting at hospitals with alcoholic liver disease, and
- 30% to 50% increase in the number of hospitalizations and deaths caused by alcohol-related liver disease in 2020.
It is imperative that the U.S. federal and state governments improve alcohol policy solutions to reduce the heavy alcohol harm faced by American citizens. The World Health Organization has put together the SAFER technical package to provide a blueprint for the most effective alcohol policy solutions to prevent and reduce alcohol harm.
Additionally, treatment and support services for people and families with alcohol problems must be strengthened.
JAMA Network: “Alcohol-Related Deaths During the COVID-19 Pandemic”