Increases in alcohol consumption first seen nationwide at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic continued through at least late 2020, according to a follow-up survey conducted by RTI International, a nonprofit research institute. The study’s findings show that survey takers are saying they drink alcohol “to cope” rose from 41% in February, 2020 to 49% in November. Also, riskier drinking is seen in women more than men, in households with children, and is slightly higher in certain ethnic subgroups.
Melanie Sheehan, MCHES, Regional Prevention Program Manager of Mt. Ascutney Prevention Partnership, says it is important for all Vermonters to be mindful of their alcohol consumption. “Excessive alcohol use can erode the quality aspects of marriage and family life and takes the lives of nearly 100,000 people a year in the United States,” she explains, “Initially, a person may think that using alcohol will help them deal with stress, but as they continue to drink more and more, over time, this use can turn into dependence. Once individuals become psychologically addicted, alcohol abuse can become all-consuming. It is clear that the added stress of the pandemic continues to have a measurable impact,” she says, pointing to the study’s findings that 49% of respondents are drinking more to cope.
Sheehan says that it is important to pay close attention to subsequent waves of the survey to see if these trends continue. The increase in drinking, which translates to 4.6 million more people in the US exceeding drinking guidelines, and 9 million more people binge drinking, increases the health risks associated substance use disorder. “Knowing that people didn’t just increase their drinking for a month or two at the start of the pandemic, but that these trends continued throughout the entire year, is cause for concern,” she says, adding, “we need to monitor alcohol consumption, paying special attention to marginalized communities. This data inspires us to redouble our efforts to effect positive change at the policy level, and to ensure that individuals have access to the resources they need to lead healthy lives.”
The survey, sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, was conducted in two waves and measured drinking behavior in February, April, June, and November of 2020. It measured average drinks per month, percentage of people exceeding suggested drinking guidelines (4 drinks a day for men and 3 drinks a day for women), and percentage of people who engaged in binge drinking. Increases were seen from February to April. Compared with February, 2020, the number of drinks consumed per month increased by 36% in April and 39% in November. The proportion of the population exceeding recommended drinking guidelines increased by 27% in April and 39% in November over February, while binge drinking increased by 26% and 30%, respectively. Those increases were mainly sustained through November.
The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to and increased levels of stress and uncertainty, especially for populations already experiencing adversity and health inequities. The results of this study show that persons who were disproportionately impacted by increased alcohol use were women, those who lived in a household with children, and those who identified as Black non-Hispanic.
People who are concerned about substance use disorder in their own lives can get help at VT Helplink, by telephone at 802-565-LINK (5465) and online at VTHelplink.org. Inspiring stories of Vermonters in Recovery and local resources are also available at www.weareworthwhile.org .
People interested in understanding their patterns of drinking and level of risk can visit https://www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/.