According to a new study on U.S. drinking habits, alcohol consumption increased significantly at the start of the pandemic and continued to rise until late last year.
According to research funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the largest increase in excessive consumption — measured between pre-pandemic February 2020 and the start of the second wave in November — occurred among blacks, at 510%. Excessive consumption increased by 39% across all demographics in the same time frame.
The largest increase in average consumption occurred among black women, at 173%; Hispanic women, 148%; Black men, at 173%; men of ‘different race and ethnicity’ by 209%; and women with children under 5, at 323%.
“Our research shows that at the start of the pandemic, people didn’t increase their alcohol consumption for just a month or two — the trend lasted almost all year,” said Carolina Barbosa, a behavioral scientist at RTI International and author of the study. “Increases in alcohol use have been linked to natural disasters and other large-scale events that cause stress and anxiety, and a pandemic certainly fits that description.”
Researchers from the nonprofit organization RTI International presented their findings last week in the webinar, “One Year Later: How Have American Drinking Habits Changed During the COVID-19 Pandemic?” They submit the research to journals for peer review.
The findings further underscore the racial inequalities in health that the pandemic has exacerbated, experts say. And they show the mental health impact of the pandemic on women — especially those with young children — who have often taken on greater responsibilities. The crisis appeared to accelerate a trend of increased alcohol consumption among women.
“Women are more likely to use alcohol to deal with stress, depression and anxiety, and all of this is a natural response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Barbosa said. “Alcohol consumption among women has been on the rise over the past two decades, and our study suggests that the pandemic may only exacerbate that trend.”
Several studies have found that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on blacks and Hispanics, with many facing job loss, greater exposure to the coronavirus as many are essential workers and have fewer resources to cope with stress, among other factors.
“They are more marginalized communities with fewer resources,” Barbosa said. “The stress of the pandemic could be higher. While many people can stay and work at home, many are [Blacks and Hispanics] had to work in essential matters [jobs]. People consume alcohol to deal with stress.”
The lockdown forced many people in disadvantaged communities to be confined to often small living spaces, homeschooling their children with fewer resources and access to technology, experts say.
Alcohol also became easier to buy during the pandemic, further complicating matters, experts added. Although access to mental health providers was restricted, many states declared that liquor stores and restaurants serving alcohol were essential businesses and that alcohol could be delivered or sold for street pick-up.
“Everything was closed, but the liquor stores were open, so some people felt they had no choice,” says Dr. Indra Cidambi, medical director and founder of the Center for Network Therapy, an addiction treatment outpatient clinic with three locations in New Jersey.
“There was a lack of socialization, financial insecurity, disruption, and for mental health, people can wait a few months to see someone,” said Cidambi, who was not involved in the study. “There was no” [in-person] access to support networks like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous — and initially, for months — some support resources were unavailable [in any form].”
In a previous analysis funded by RTI, researchers looked at pre-pandemic consumption habits in February 2020 and compared them with levels from April of that year.
Those data showed an increase in drinking consistent with the patterns of the latest study, with overall average consumption increasing by 36% in 2020 between February and April and excessive consumption by 27%.
The studies defined excessive drinking as consuming no more than four drinks a day and 14 a week for men, and no more than three a day and seven a week for women and people over 65.
Some of the other findings include:
Among women, consumption continued to increase throughout the year. Between April and November 2020, more women than men reported excessive drinking. Between February and November 2020, all Americans consumed 1 billion drinks per month. more drinks in two hours for men and four or more drinks in the same period for women.
A summary of the first study published last year on the National Institutes of Health website acknowledged that major traumatic events, such as the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, resulted in an increase in alcohol consumption and use disorders. But it added: “The weeks of isolation imposed by stay-at-home policies and the scale of the current pandemic are unmatched by recent disasters.”
The authors recommended addressing the rise in drinking by continuing to monitor it, paying particular attention to marginalized communities. They also proposed to study the potential continued harm from the consumption trend after the pandemic, expand the study of alcohol consumption patterns for this year and for the full duration of the health crisis, and support efforts to prevent the consequences of increased alcohol consumption and to deal with.
“Policymakers need to be prepared to respond to the public health implications of such a sudden, sustained increase in alcohol consumption,” Barbosa said. “I would also encourage them to reflect on the lessons learned from the pandemic.
“For example, the relaxation of regulations during the pandemic to allow for roadside pick-ups and the expansion of alcohol home delivery privileges may have contributed to higher consumption, and now some of these relaxed rules are being enacted permanently.”
The Consumer Federation of America released a statement describing the investigation’s findings as an alarm that cannot be ignored.
“These data reinforce the case for common sense policies to educate consumers about the dangers of alcohol,” said Thomas Gremillion, director of food policy at Consumer Federation of America. “And public health authorities should do more to warn consumers about the dangers of alcohol, including its excessive contributor to cancers, including breast cancer and colon cancer. Specifically, Congress should review the 1987 law establishing the alcohol health warning and amend it to include a cancer warning.”
Researchers interviewed 1,018 people for the first study and focused on 993 who were of legal drinking age. For the second study, according to Barbosa, they selected about 557 of the 790 who reported alcohol use during the study period.
RTI International describes itself as an independent, not-for-profit research institute that, according to its website, aims to “address the world’s most critical problems with science-based solutions”. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism is part of the National Institutes of Health.
Liz Llorente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.