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Pandemic drinking may exacerbate upward-trending alcohol deathsJune 14, 2021:
Even before 2020, alcohol-involved deaths reached a modern record
Considering the well-deserved attention paid to the opioid crisis in recent years, few people might guess that rates of alcohol-involved deaths were as high as or higher than opioid overdose death rates in nearly half of states (Figure 1).1 Like the opioid crisis, the trend in alcohol-involved deaths is also worsening, having grown by roughly 50 percent in just over a decade. All this was before the coronavirus crisis had even begun.
Data and analysis on alcohol-involved deaths
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Now, evidence is accumulating that the pandemic precipitated dangerous changes in the way people consume alcohol in the United States. For instance, research has found increased alcohol sales since the crisis began, a finding illustrated by data showing that liquor taxes represented a rare instance of increased revenues for some states, such as Minnesota, during the COVID pandemic.2,3 Other studies have found that U.S. adults report consuming more alcohol in order to deal with pandemic-related stress, and that they are drinking more frequently and engaging in more high-risk drinking behaviors, such as heavy drinking and binge drinking.4,5,6
As we climb our way out of the immediate crisis, the U.S. will need to shift attention back to long-running public health threats. Beyond the obvious toll of the virus itself, another legacy of the pandemic may be the exacerbation of existing problems, including alcohol-related deaths and the opioid crisis. The opioid crisis was commonly recognized before 2020, but the upward trend in alcohol deaths was still occurring largely under the radar (Figure 2). But recent attention to risky pandemic-related alcohol consumption can sharpen our focus on this emerging concern.
With alcohol especially, the U.S. has a window of opportunity to intervene before many people’s pandemic-era risky drinking habits result in deaths, since the bulk of alcohol-involved deaths result from years of excessive drinking. In the coming years, it will be vital for states to monitor and study these issues and to consider doubling down on policy initiatives to curb the tide through efforts such as enhancing access to treatment of substance use disorder and by persuading and assisting people in recalibrating their alcohol consumption to healthier levels.
1 SHADAC Staff. U.S. alcohol-related deaths grew nearly 50% in two decades: SHADAC briefs examine the number among subgroups and states. https://www.shadac.org/news/us-alcohol-related-deaths-grew-nearly-50-two-decades. Published April 19, 2021. Accessed May 12, 2021.
2 Rebalancing the ‘COVID-19 effect’ on alcohol sales. Nielseniq.com. https://nielseniq.com/global/en/insights/2020/rebalancing-the-covid-19-effect-on-alcohol-sales/. Published May 7, 2020. Accessed May 12, 2021.
3 Ewoldt J. Liquor stores neared sales records for 2020 as bars, restaurants closed. Startribune.com. https://www.startribune.com/liquor-stores-neared-sales-records-for-2020-as-bars-restaurants-closed/573469221/. Published December 26, 2020. Accessed May, 12, 2021.
4 American Psychological Association. Stress in America: One year later, a new wave of pandemic health concerns. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2021/sia-pandemic-report.pdf. Published March 2021. Accessed May 12, 2021.
5 Pollard MS, Tucker JS, Green HD. Changes in adult alcohol use and consequences during the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. JAMA Netw Open. 2020; 3(9): e2022942. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.22942.
6 Grossman ER, Benjamin-Neelon SE, Sonnenschein S. Alcohol Consumption during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Cross-Sectional Survey of US Adults. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(24): 9189. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17249189