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May 28, 2020

When does 'lockdown drinking' become a problem?

Daily Briefing

    With millions of people staying home and social distancing during America's new coronavirus epidemic, data shows that alcohol sales in the country have increased significantly—and experts worry that some Americans could be at risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, Maria Cramer reports for the New York Times.

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    Alcohol sales increase

    In late March, alcohol sales in the United States were up by 55% when compared with the same time in 2019, Cramer reports. And while sales of beer, wine, and spirits have tapered off since then, they're still higher than they were a year ago, according to the market research firm Nielsen.

    However, it's unclear whether Americans are actually drinking more or if they way they're purchasing alcohol merely has changed, Cramer reports, noting that closures of restaurants and bars have meant Americans haven't been able to purchase and drink alcohol at those establishments. According to Cramer, in a Morning Consult poll of 2,200 people in April, 16% of respondents said they were drinking more than they were before, 19% said they were drinking less, and 55% said their drinking habits hadn't changed since America's new coronavirus epidemic took hold.

    But in China, where the global coronavirus pandemic originated, reports of harmful drinking have increased, Cramer reports. According to Cramer, harmful drinking is typically defined as drinking alcohol to excess in a manner that can cause health issues.

    A study published last month in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry found a significant increase in reports of harmful drinking in China, especially among those between the ages of 21 and 40. According to the study, the rate of reported harmful drinking and dependence on alcohol increased 6.7% during lockdowns implemented in China to curb the new coronavirus' spread, Cramer reports.

    Why people may be drinking more

    Experts say that the anxiety associated with the new coronavirus pandemic could be leading people to drink more alcohol.

    Adam Leventhal, director of the University of Southern California Institute for Addiction Science, told Cramer that drinking alcohol and drug usage typically rise when people experience war, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters. However, he noted, "A pandemic of this magnitude affecting the entire globe is something we've never encountered before. … Every person is being affected by it.

    Md Zahir Ahmed, an author of the Chinese study, said, "Social isolation, limited interaction, [and] financial distress are causing excessive stress" amid the pandemic, and increased stress "has direct correlations with alcohol consumption."

    For some, alcohol consumption can provide a sense of normalcy "during a difficult time," Cramer reports. For instance, Kelly Rubinsohn, an opera singer and former office manager at an architectural firm, said she typically drank wine before America's coronavirus epidemic began, but after being furloughed from her office manager job and spending more time at home, she's been experimenting with cocktail recipes. "There is literally nothing else to control," she said. "I can at least make a cocktail."

    Why increases in drinking worry experts

    Experts are concerned that increases in alcohol consumption could lead some people to develop an alcohol use disorder that they didn't experience before the epidemic.

    Sarah Wakeman, a substance use disorder doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, said, "I expect we're going to see pretty significant increases in what I call unhealthy alcohol use, which means drinking above recommended limits." Wakeman continued, "It will be pretty unlikely for someone who has never tried alcohol before to start drinking for the first time and immediately develop an alcohol use disorder," but "people who are already drinking and then their alcohol use escalates" could be more at risk.

    Still, Wakeman said people shouldn't feel ashamed or conclude they have an alcohol use disorder just because they've drank larger amounts of alcohol than they typically would for a few nights. "Everyone is cutting themselves some slack because these are crazy times," she said.

    Instead, Wakeman said a person should seek help if family and friends are concerned about their alcohol consumption, if drinking inhibits their ability to perform their everyday responsibilities, and if they continue wanting to drink when they know it's causing problems. "[T]he same way we do with food and exercise and concerns about obesity, we want to have some benchmarks for how to stay healthy," she said (Cramer, New York Times, 5/26).

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