New study finds people are drinking at unsafe levels more frequently during the pandemic

The liquor aisle is pictured at a Ralphs grocery store during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Pasadena, California, U.S., June 11, 2020. Picture taken June 11, 2020. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
The liquor aisle is pictured at a Ralphs grocery store during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Pasadena, California, U.S., June 11, 2020. Picture taken June 11, 2020. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many people into their homes, where they were encouraged to shelter in place for weeks. And, while many restaurants and bars closed as a result of the pandemic, a new study finds that people – especially women, those who are unemployed, Black people and parents – have actually been drinking more than they did before COVID-19 hit.

The study, which was conducted by nonprofit research institute RTI International, surveyed more than 1,000 people across the U.S. to see how their alcohol consumption changed from February to April. The researchers discovered that, as a whole, people increased their alcohol intake from 0.74 drinks a day in February to 0.94 drinks in April.

Nearly 35 percent of people surveyed said they drank at excessive levels in April, compared to 29 percent in February. That wasn’t all: 27 percent reported binge drinking in April, compared to 22 percent in February.

Parents, women, those who were unemployed and those who are Black were particularly impacted, the study found.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, women should have no more than one drink a day, and men should have no more than two drinks a day. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines heavy alcohol use as having three or more drinks a day for women and four or more drinks a day for men. (RTI defined “excessive” drinking this way.) Binge drinking is having four or more drinks a day for women and five or more drinks for men, in about two hours. 

“Evidence from recent crises and natural disasters suggests that alcohol consumption increases after such events, but the scale of the pandemic is so much larger,” RTI health economist Carolina Barbosa tells Yahoo Life.

Barbosa says she and her colleagues had some idea that post-pandemic drinking behaviors wouldn’t be ideal given that nationwide alcohol sales increased when the pandemic first hit—sales ramped up 22 percent year-over-year the last week in March, per Nielsen Corp. But the way they discovered people were drinking during this time was concerning.

What’s going on here?

There are a likely a few factors behind this, Barbosa says. “Increased consumption might be a response to stress due to the pandemic and economic uncertainty,” she says. And, she adds, people were probably a little bored. “People likely had more leisure time and fewer alternative activities to engage in during the period of widespread stay-at-home orders,” she says.

At the same time, alcohol was more readily available for some. Many states deemed liquor stores essential businesses and some lifted restrictions on alcohol delivery, as well as the ability to get alcohol to go from bars and restaurants, Barbosa points out. Worth noting: In South Africa, the sale of alcohol has been banned twice in an attempt to free up hospital beds from alcohol-related illnesses for COVID-19 patients.

In the U.S., several outbreaks have been tied to bars. Now, some states are taking aim at alcohol and its potential role in the pandemic, with Washington, California and more states closing bars as cases continue to spike. “It is possible that increased availability of alcohol at home – through alcohol delivery, curbside pickup and mixed drinks to go, for example – offset the temporary closure of bars and restaurants that offer alcohol on-premises,” Barbosa says. But, she adds, more research is needed.

Jed Magen, associate professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life that he’s “not at all” surprised by the findings. “This is similar to any situation where people have less structure and more time on their hands,” he says.

But it is surprising that people with alcohol use disorders didn’t start drinking more once infection rates began to rise in the U.S., as the survey found, Dr. Petros Levounis, chair of the department of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and chief of service at University Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. “In other stressful situations – after the Oklahoma City Bombing and 9/11 – we saw an increase in alcohol use and drugs, but only among people who were already using or who were in recovery,” he says. “These findings are very striking.” 

A lot of why people are engaging in more excessive drinking behavior likely has to do with their individual circumstances, Dr. Edwin Kim, medical director of the Charles O’Brien Center for Addiction Treatment at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Yahoo Life. “What's going on with their employment or career, in their social and family settings, and what stressors are they experiencing? Individual factors can predispose someone to utilize alcohol more readily than others,” he says.

As for the disparities between different groups, Kim thinks it’s due to the availability of resources and how the pandemic has made gaps – in gender, race, and work-life balance – even more apparent. “Childcare is a huge issue for families as they learn to cope in this pandemic,” he says. “If an individual or family is stretched thin already, then this pandemic has highlighted the weaknesses in emotional, cognitive, and financial resources to cope with this disruption in society.”

Magen points out that these “are not monolithic groups” though. “They all differ within the group in socioeconomic status, education and resources,” he says. “An example might be if you are Black and an essential worker in a grocery store. You know you are more exposed. You may have fewer resources and not much ability to decompress at home because of responsibilities with children. Take the same person who is an attorney who can work from home and he and his wife can split up child care more effectively because he is home. While both may be stressed, one might have a much greater level of stress and use alcohol as a way to moderate anxiety and stress perhaps later at night.”  

As a whole, increases in drinking habits, including unsafe drinking habits, comes down to trying to find relief, Brad Lander, a psychologist and clinical director of addiction medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “There’s real anxiety happening,” he says. “People are just reaching for a way to feel better.”

What needs to happen next?

Barbosa says that awareness on a personal level is key. “Follow the guidelines recommended by NIAAA and be aware of changes in drinking patterns that are associated with life events,” she says. Barbosa also urges people to “consider alternatives to drinking,” like calling a friend, ”particularly if you are drinking to help deal with the stress of these turbulent times.”

Lander also recommends doing your best to minimize your stressors, although he admits that’s often easier said than done. One thing you can do, though: Limit how much you obsess over the news. “When it’s all bad, that can make you even more stressed,” he says.  

And, if you’re concerned that your alcohol consumption has hit problematic levels, Magen recommends removing all alcohol from your house. Finding more structure in your day, calling a mental health counselor, or joining a virtual Alcoholics Anonymous group can also help, he says.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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