COVID-19 Shutdown Fuels Sharp Rise in Alcohol Use

Megan Brooks

September 29, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Americans sharply increased their alcohol intake last spring as many areas of the country shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, results of a national survey show.

The overall frequency of alcohol consumption increased by 14% among adults over age 30 in the spring of 2020 versus the same period a year earlier.

The increase was most evident in adults aged 30 to 59, women, and non-Hispanic Whites, results of the survey show.

"Alcohol consumption can have significant negative health consequences, so this information suggests another way that the pandemic may be affecting the physical and mental health of Americans," Michael Pollard, PhD, lead investigator and sociologist at RAND, said in a news release.

The results were published online as a research letter September 29 in JAMA Network Open.

Booming Business

After some US states issued stay-at-home orders to fight the spread of SARS-CoV-2, one study noted a 54% increase in national sales of alcohol for the week ending March 21, 2020, relative to 1 year earlier and a 262% increase in online alcohol sales.

"We've had anecdotal information about people buying and consuming more alcohol," Pollard said, but the RAND study provides the first survey-based information that shows how much alcohol consumption has increased during the pandemic.

The findings are based on 1540 adults (mean age, 56.6 years; 57% women) from the RAND American Life Panel, a nationally representative sample of Americans who were surveyed about their alcohol consumption before the pandemic in the spring of 2019, and again in the spring of 2020 during the early months of the shutdown.

Overall, in spring 2020, respondents reported drinking alcohol 6.22 days in the prior month on average, a 14% increase from the monthly average of 5.48 days reported in spring 2019.

Among adults aged 30 to 59 years, the frequency of alcohol consumption increased from 4.98 days pre-pandemic to 5.91 days during the pandemic, a 19% increase.

Women reported drinking an average of 5.36 days in the prior month in the early pandemic period, a 17% increase from 4.58 monthly drinking days before the pandemic. 

In addition, compared with spring 2019, in spring 2020 women reported a 41% increase in heavy drinking days — 4 or more drinks in a couple of hours.

Independent of consumption level, nearly 1 in 10 women had an increase in alcohol-related problems in the pandemic period, based on responses to the Short Inventory of Problems scale.

For non-Hispanic White individuals, the overall frequency of alcohol intake rose 10% during the early pandemic period. 

"The population level changes for women, younger, and non-Hispanic White individuals highlight that health systems may need to educate consumers through print or online media about increased alcohol use during the pandemic and identify factors associated with susceptibility and resilience to the impacts of COVID-19," write Pollard and colleagues.

The authors note it will be important to determine whether increases in alcohol use persist as the pandemic continues, and whether psychological and physical well-being are subsequently affected.

The study was supported by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The authors have reported no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA Netw Open. Published online September 29, 2020. Full text

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