Researchers from RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, California, and Indiana University School of Public Health, Bloomington, Indiana, last week released their work studying the pattern of alcohol use and its consequences on Americans during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Their study titled, “Changes in Adult Alcohol Use and Consequences During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the US,” was published on September 29 in the latest issue of the JAMA Network Open.
Researchers Michael Pollard, Joan Tucker, and Harold Green write that with the advent of the highly infectious severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) which causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), there have been several measures to contain the spread of infection. One of the important measures to break the chain of transmission has been lockdowns and the prevention of gatherings. As more and more people were forced to stay at home, the consumption of alcohol and other substances also was altered.
The team writes that according to reports from Nielsen, there has been a 54 percent rise in the national sales of alcohol for the week ending March 21, 2020 when compared to the same week in 2019. Between 2019 and 2020, the online sales of alcohol rose by a whopping 262 percent, they wrote. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also warned that excessive use of alcohol during the pandemic could raise risks to health and also raise the propensity of risky behaviors detrimental to overall health.
This study attempted to look at person to person changes in alcohol use and its consequences among American adults and compare them with pre-pandemic statistics.
The study was conducted as a survey using the RAND Corporation American Life Panel (ALP). For the study, a representative sample of 6,000 adult English or Spanish speaking participants was included.
The data was collected in two halves – waves 1 and 2. Wave was included 2615 participants aged between 30 and 80 years. This was between April 29 and June 9 2019. Of these, a total of 1771 participants completed the survey. Wave 2 data was gathered during the pandemic between May 28 and June 16, 2020. During wave 2 there was a nationwide social distancing norm implementation. In wave 2, 58.9 percent of the respondents in wave 1 completed the survey.
Factors surveyed and questions asked included
- General characteristics such as gender, age, and race/ethnicity
- Number of days of any alcohol use
- Number of days of heavy drinking (defined as 5 or more drinks for men and 4 or more drinks for women within a couple of hours)
- The average number of drinks consumed over the past 30 days
- 15-item Short Inventory of Problems associated with alcohol use in the past 3 months (e.g., “I have taken foolish risks when I have been drinking”)
What was found?
The study included a total of 1,540 adults of an average age of 56.6 years, with 57.3 percent females.
The overall results showed :
- Frequency of alcohol consumption increased overall
- A 0.74 days rise from the average 5.48 days in 2019 for men and 0.78 days rise from the average 4.58 days in 2019 for women
- There was a 14 percent and 17 percent increase in alcohol use from baseline respectively for men and women
- For participants aged between 30 and 59 years, 0.93 days or an increase of 19 percent was recorded
- For non-Hispanic White individuals, an increase of 0.66 days or an increase of 10 percent was recorded over the 2019 baseline of 6.46 days
- Among three-fourths of the population, alcohol was consumed 1 day more per month, the researchers wrote
- Among women, there was an increase of 0.18 days of heavy drinking from a 2019 baseline of 0.44 days. This was a 41 percent rise from 2019.
- For 1 in 5 women, there was an increase of an average 1 day of drinking during the pandemic.
- Among women, there was a rise of scores in the Short Inventory of Problems scale to the tune of 39 percent. This showed a significant increase in alcohol-related problems independent of consumption level among nearly 10 percent of women.
Conclusions and implications
Michael Pollard, lead author of the study and a sociologist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization said in a statement, “We’ve had anecdotal information about people buying and consuming more alcohol, but this is some of the first survey-based information that shows how much alcohol consumption has increased during the pandemic.” “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,” Pollard added.
The authors of the study write, “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 which may themselves be increasing during COVID-19.” They pointed out that the effects were most significant among women, younger, and non-Hispanic White individuals and this shows that there is scope for public awareness campaigns aiming at these populations to reduce alcohol use and bring down the adverse consequences.
The study was supported by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.