Alcohol Use Increased Significantly During COVID-19 Stay-at-Home Orders

The aftermath of the pandemic might give rise to an epidemic of alcohol-related illnesses and mental health problems. That is according to a new RAND Corporation study, which finds significant increases in alcohol use during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Here is more information.

SANTA MONICA, CA – As evidence mounts about health consequences of stay-at-home orders related to COVID-19, alcohol apparently is involved in many cases.

A report in JAMA Network Open examines individual level changes in alcohol use and consequences associated with alcohol use in U.S. adults. RAND Corporation-led researchers also focus on demographic disparities, from before to during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As stay-at-home orders began in some US states as a mitigation strategy for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) transmission, Nielsen reported a 54% increase in national sales of alcohol for the week ending March 21, 2020, compared with 1 year before; online sales increased 262% from 2019,” the authors write. “Three weeks later, the World Health Organization warned that alcohol use during the pandemic may potentially exacerbate health concerns and risk-taking behaviors.”

For the study, data were collected using the RAND Corporation American Life Panel (ALP), a nationally representative, probability-sampled panel of 6,000 participants age 18 years or more who speak English or Spanish; data are weighted to match a range of national demographic characteristics.

Researchers invited a sample of 2615 ALP members ages 30 to 80 years to participate in the baseline survey (wave 1), which was closed after 6 weeks (April 29-June 9, 2019) with 1,771 completions. Wave 2 data were collected from May 28 to June 16, 2020, several months after widespread implementation of COVID-19–associated social distancing.

Study authors made comparisons before and during the COVID-19 pandemic based on the  number of days of any alcohol use and heavy drinking (defined as 5 or more drinks for men and 4 or more drinks for women, as well as average number of drinks consumed over the past 30 days. At the same time, the 15-item Short Inventory of Problems assessed adverse consequences associated with alcohol use in the past 3 months; a sample answers included, “I have taken foolish risks when I have been drinking”.

The current analytic sample includes 1,540 adults (87.0%; mean [SD] age, 56.6 [13.5] years, with 53.6% in the age range of 30-59 years; and 57.3% being female. Results indicate that frequency of alcohol consumption increased overall by 0.74 days (95% CI, 0.33-1.15 days), representing an increase of 14% over the baseline of 5.48 days in 2019. For women, an increase of 0.78 days (95% CI, 0.41-1.15 days), was 17% higher than the 2019 baseline of 4.58 days. For adults age 30 to 59 years, an increase of 0.93 days (95% CI, 0.36-1.51 days),  was 19% greater, while, for non-Hispanic White individuals, 0.66 days (95% CI, 0.14 to 1.17 days), was 10% over the 2019 baseline of 6.46 days (Table 2).

“On average, alcohol was consumed 1 day more per month by 3 of 4 adults,” the authors explain. “For women, there was also a significant increase of 0.18 days of heavy drinking (95% CI, 0.04-0.32 days), from a 2019 baseline of 0.44 days, which represents an increase of 41% over baseline. This equates to an increase of 1 day for 1 in 5 women. For women there was an average increase in the Short Inventory of Problems scale of 0.09 (95% CI, 0.01-0.17 items), over the 2019 average baseline of 0.23, representing a 39% increase, which is indicative of increased alcohol-related problems independent of consumption level for nearly 1 in 10 women.”

Researchers point out that their data “provide evidence of changes in alcohol use and associated consequences during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to a range of negative physical health associations, excessive alcohol use may lead to or worsen existing mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression,6 which may themselves be increasing during COVID-19. 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.”

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