October 6, 2020

Charted: How the coronavirus epidemic has changed America's drinking habits

Daily Briefing

    People are consuming more alcohol during the coronavirus epidemic than they did the year prior, according to a study published in JAMA Network Open, with women especially seeing an increase in alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems.

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    Study details

    For the study, researchers looked at data from the RAND Corporation American Life Panel, a survey of English- or Spanish-speaking respondents who were weighted to match specific demographics.

    Overall, 2,615 people were invited to participate in the first wave, of whom 1,771 responded between April 29 and June 9, 2019. For the second wave, 58.9% of those invited to participate in the first wave participated—or about 1,540 people—responding between May 28 and June 16, 2020, when many people were sheltering at home due to the new coronavirus. The survey asked respondents about their alcohol consumption within the past 30 days.  

    More people are consuming alcohol during the epidemic

    The researchers found that overall alcohol consumption increased 14% between the two survey waves, with a 17% increase among women. Overall, heavy drinking—which was defined as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women within a couple of hours—increased by 18.8%. However, women saw a significant increase (41%) in heavy drinking, representing an increase of one additional day of heavy drinking for one in five women, the researchers wrote.

    The researchers also found an increase in Short Inventory of Problems (SIP) scores, which assess "adverse consequences associated with alcohol use in the past three months." Overall, SIP scores increased by 30% between the survey waves, with women seeing a 39% increase in SIP scores. The researchers wrote that the higher SIP score for women is "indicative of increased alcohol-related problems independent of consumption level for nearly one in 10 women."

    Younger people were found to be drinking more often and more heavily in 2020 than older people, the researchers found, with people ages 30 to 59 seeing an 18.7% increase in alcohol consumption compared with a 5.7% increase among people ages 60 to 80. People ages 30 to 59 also saw a 29.1% increase in heavy drinking, and a 34.2% increase in SIP scores.

    When broken down by race and ethnicity, non-Hispanic Black respondents saw the largest increase in alcohol consumption, with a 27.2% increase. However, non-Hispanic white respondents saw the largest increase in heavy drinking—36.3%i—and Hispanic respondents saw the largest increase in SIP scores, up by 218.2%.

    Discussion

    The researchers wrote that the study findings show that alcohol use and consequences associated with alcohol use have increased during the new coronavirus epidemic.

    Increased alcohol consumption has been associated with worsening mental health problems such as anxiety or depression, the researchers added, although they noted that mental health problems could also be worsening independent of alcohol consumption as a result of the epidemic.

    "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," the researchers wrote (Owens, "Vitals," Axios, 9/30; Walker, MedPage Today, 9/29).

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