Huge Increase in Alcohol Use & Abuse During COVID-19 Lockdowns

WRITTEN BY GERARD BULLEN

FEBRUARY 23, 2021

Edited by Editorial Team

Editorial Team

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Although our newspaper headlines and “trending” social media have never been far away from the theme of the coronavirus pandemic that continues to (literally) plague the U.S. and beyond, there has always been another danger lurking in the background, and consistently foreshortening lives, year after year – the world’s premier legal, tax-revenue-generating, and most heavily advertised poison, alcohol.

A newly released “life expectancy” report, published just this week (February 2021) by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), shows that the predicted lifespan of the average U.S. citizen decreased by one whole year during the first half of 2020, thanks mainly to COVID-19, but the rising rate of alcohol-related mortality is having its effect, too.

Now taking the lives of an estimated 95,000 people every single year from alcohol-attributable causes (that’s even more than the record number lost to fatal drug overdoses last year – now regarded as the new peak of the national opioid epidemic), alcohol is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., behind only tobacco, and poor diet/physical inactivity.

Just like the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to unavoidable and widespread social and economic disruption, business closures, those record numbers of fatal drug overdoses, and a significant decrease in the nation’s mental wellbeing, alcohol has its own dark spectrum of negative knock-on effects, too, such as fatal motor vehicle accidents, the terror of sexual assault, various forms of terminal cancer, and alcohol use disorder (AUD) – the medical name for alcohol dependence, or just plain and simple alcoholism.

Alcohol Dependency

Rising Alcohol Dependence During COVID-19 Lockdowns

Now, a newly published study by respected University of Arizona Health Sciences researchers has found hard evidence that the pandemic has also led to a significant and alarming trend of increased alcohol use and abuse, especially among younger adults, men, and those recently made unemployed.

Its main finding stated that this excessive and hazardous alcohol use, and the associated likelihood of this behavior resulting in the development of an AUD, increased month-on-month for those under coronavirus-related lockdown regulations, compared to those who were not subject to such limitations and restrictions.

Being under lockdown during a worldwide pandemic has been hard on everyone, and many people are relying on greater quantities of alcohol to ease their distress. We found that younger people were the most susceptible to increased alcohol use during the pandemic, which could set them on the dangerous path toward long-term alcohol dependence.” – Dr. William “Scott” Killgore, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry, UArizona College of Medicine, Tucson

The research paper – entitled “Alcohol Dependence during COVID-19 Lockdowns,” and published in the journal Psychiatry Research – was led by William “Scott” Killgore, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry, UArizona College of Medicine, in Tucson, Arizona.

Dr. Killgore and his co-authors surveyed a total of 5,931 adults from all 50 states and the District of Columbia between the months of April to September 2020. Every month, around 1,000 of the study’s participants completed the “Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test” (known as AUDIT, for short), which is a recognized and respected 10-question form used to detect hazardous drinking in adults.

Arizona College of Medicine

The UArizona Study’s Methodology, Results & Conclusions

Methodology

The AUDIT questionnaire used by the researchers for collecting monthly results during the 6-month study is specifically designed to  assess a number of factors relevant to an individual’s personal alcohol consumption; these are:

  • The frequency and quantity of alcohol consumed
  • The behaviors associated with dependence, and 
  • The harm resulting from alcohol use

The questionnaire, once completed, provides scores ranging from 0 to 40, and these are then interpreted as follows:

  • A score of 8-14 suggests a hazardous or harmful level of alcohol consumption
  • A score of 15 or more indicates the likelihood of alcohol dependence, and
  • A score of 20 or more implies severe alcohol use disorder (AUD)

Results

The increased use and abuse of alcohol discovered by the multi-survey study showed that those individuals under coronavirus lockdowns rose across all 3 of the thresholds provided above, with the following results:

  • Hazardous alcohol use: From 21.0% in April to 40.7% in September
  • Likelihood of alcohol dependence: From 7.9% in April to 29.1% in September, and
  • Severe alcohol use disorder (AUD) or alcohol dependence: From 3.9% in April to 17.4% by September

Significantly, the results for those individuals who were not placed under lockdown restrictions remained essentially unchanged across all of the 3 thresholds.

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Conclusions

Dr. Killgore concluded that the results of this study presented several deep concerns that need to be addressed, and preferably addressed in the short-term to reduce the inevitable knock-on effects of this rise in alcohol use, abuse, and dependence.

  1. Effect of Unemployment: The increases seen were primarily driven by young adults, men, and job loss, and unemployment was identified as the greatest influence on the study’s findings.
  2. Lockdowns: The highest increases in the use and abuse of alcohol occurred predominantly among individuals who were under lockdowns or “stay-at-home” orders.
  3. Health Risks: This surge in general alcohol use and clear, significant levels of alcohol abuse brings several increased health risks, not just to the individual that is drinking to excess, but also to their immediate family, or those they are experiencing the lockdown with.

Being cooped up with family for weeks and months without a break can be difficult, but when excess alcohol gets mixed in, it can become a recipe for increased aggressive behavior and domestic violence.– Dr. William “Scott” Killgore, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry, UArizona College of Medicine, Tucson

For the individual drinking excessively or those with AUD, there are numerous serious health conditions associated with their alcohol dependence, including specific types of cancer, chronic liver disease, personal injury, mental health disorders and behavioral issues, and, of course, a premature death.

  1. Presenteeism: Additionally, the employers of those who are drinking excessively will likely be affected, too, by “presenteeism” – defined as “the problem of workers being on the job but, because of illness or other medical conditions, not fully functioning.” With many employees working remotely, this factor of presenteeism, known to cut an individual’s work output by one-third or more, has worsened. Unlike absenteeism, presenteeism is not always apparent to managers.

As Dr. Killgore explains, “Many of us are working from home, but this is not the same thing as being productive from home. The use of alcohol while ‘on the job’ at home is likely to reduce productivity at a time when the country needs us to be doing everything we can to sustain the economy. Having a few drinks while ‘on the clock’ at home can lead to a situation of ‘presenteeism,’ which… could severely hamper our ability to pull out of this crisis quickly, and on a strong economic footing.”

  1. Long-Term Health Implications: 

Lastly, if these trends continue, they will become another significant physical and psychiatric health concern for the U.S., with, as Dr. Killgore states, “elevated rates of injuries, liver disease, cancer, somatic problems, psychiatric conditions, and all-cause mortality.” 

Additionally, this would be happening at a time when the U.S. health system is already stretched and fatigued, continuing to deal with the pandemic, with rising fatal and suspected drug overdoses (many containing fentanyl and fentanyl analogs), and with rising ER visits caused by the nation’s worsening mental health.

Note: If you are interested in taking the 10-question AUDIT test yourself, you can do so here. Please answer all the questions as honestly and accurately as you can to determine your correct score. Remember, however, this is only an indicative test – if you are concerned about your alcohol consumption, or that of a loved one, please speak to your family physician or an addiction treatment professional.

woman heavy drinking

In 2020, Episodes of Heavy Drinking by Women Rose 41%

Another study – “Changes in Adult Alcohol Use and Consequences During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the U.S.” – published in September of last year by the RAND Corporation further confirms this huge increase in alcohol consumption during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lead author of the study, Michael Pollard, one of RAND’s sociologists at RAND, wrote, “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.”

The study, published as a research letter in the medical journal JAMA Network Open, found that overall alcohol consumption increased by a significant 14% among adults over age 30, compared to consumption at the same time last year. For the age group 30 to 59 years, the increase was higher than the average at 19%, and, for women only, the increase was 17%.

Interestingly, non-Hispanic white adults, the increase was 10%.

One concerning statistic of particular note was an alarming increase – 41% – in the number of women who are engaging in episodes of heavy drinking, which is universally defined by U.S. health officials as 4 or more drinks within the space of just a couple of hours.

The study was based on a survey of 1,540 adults who are members of the “RAND American Life Panel” – a 6,000-strong, nationally representative internet panel setup to gauge potential outcomes such as this. The participants had previously reported their alcohol consumption during the Spring of 2019 and were surveyed again in Spring 2020, during the early months of the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.

The analysis of a survey study this size does indicate possibly rising trends amidst certain demographics – here, the trend is clearly women. Furthermore, the study was supported by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as part of the ongoing study they are currently running to gauge alcohol consumption in the U.S.

drinking alcohol in Arizona

Alcohol Use & Abuse in Arizona During 2020

The state of Arizona has a long history of substance abuse, in part down to its geographic location (bordering Mexico to the south, the leading trafficker of illegal drugs into the U.S.). The continued use and abuse of prescription opioid painkillers, illicit opioids, like heroin, and other drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, as well as alcohol, has resulted in Arizona always ranking higher than most for substance addiction – in comparison to other states in the U.S.

The Head of the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Todd Vanderah, when asked about rising substance use in Arizona during 2020, replied, “Many people have been increasing their intake of alcohol, which is easier to track because of sales, but this leads me to believe that illicit drugs are also being consumed more due to the overall depression that COVID-19 has put upon the world. The loss of social interactions, the loss of jobs, and the loss of loved ones is very devastating and can lead to a ‘who cares’ attitude and substance misuse.”

Significantly, it is the young of Arizona – its children, teenagers, and adolescents – that have contributed to Arizona’s alcohol abuse trends in recent years. Even though Arizona’s health officials have long recognized that adolescents in the state regularly use alcohol (and illicit drugs), the state’s health experts are now noticing that adolescent alcohol use is increasing with age.

According to data from Arizona’s 2019 State Health Assessment, high school students reported increasing their use of addictive substances as they get older, with alcohol and marijuana being the most commonly used. This Health Assessment reports that:

  • Only 11.5% of 8th graders used alcohol in the past 30 days
  • Rising to 20.3% of 10th graders, and then
  • 30.8% for 12th graders

signs of addiction

Alcohol Use Disorder: The Clear Signs of Abuse & Addiction

With this huge increase in alcohol consumption across a range of U.S. demographics, it is certain that they are people who have never engaged in substance abuse before now drinking more than is recommended. Obviously, these people are generally aware of the risk of alcohol addiction, but may not know how it manifests itself. This, too, can be said of their family members to a degree.

Therefore, it’s pertinent we provide the clear signs of alcohol abuse and addiction. It’s also worth remembering that addicted individuals will attempt to either hide their substance abuse, plain ignore it, or be in a state of denial about the issue.

Clear behavioral signs of alcohol use disorder (AUD) can include:

  • Inability to control how much you drink
  • Inability to control when you start drinking
  • Uncontrollable cravings or desire to drink
  • Drink to make yourself feel “normal”
  • Drinking more and more just to get the same effect as before (known as “tolerance”)
  • Hiding alcohol from others
  • Drinking alone or secretly
  • Continuing to drink despite bad consequences, eg. problems at work, arguments with loved ones, legal problems, such as DUI
  • Suffering “blackouts” – periods of time when you can’t remember anything

Physical symptoms of AUD occur when you are unable to drink, and your body reacts – this is known as “substance withdrawal.” Withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Nausea / Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Hallucinations, and
  • Convulsions

SpringBoard Recovery

SpringBoard Recovery Can Help You

SpringBoard Recovery’s alcohol rehab outpatient program, and its excellent recovery housing facilities, located in Arizona, just outside Phoenix, can help you to resolve your own hazardous drinking, and go on to develop a new, far healthier lifestyle that doesn’t depend on the use of alcohol.

If your alcohol use is either negatively affecting your family, work, finances and personal and familial relationships, you really need to resolve this abuse before it takes away everything and anything that is precious in your life.

Getting and staying sober is a challenging proposition for anyone, but it is possible with the right therapies, the right care, the right professionals, and the right environment. Contact SpringBoard Recovery today to begin getting the treatment you need.

Sources:

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/vsrr/VSRR10-508.pdf
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
  4. Science Direct: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165178120333370
  5. Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test: https://auditscreen.org/check-your-drinking/
  6. Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2004/10/presenteeism-at-work-but-out-of-it
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/p1218-overdose-deaths-covid-19.html
  8. RAND Corporation: https://www.rand.org/pubs/external_publications/EP68312.html
  9. RAND Corporation: https://www.rand.org/research/data/alp.html
  10. Arizona Department of Health Services: https://www.azdhs.gov/documents/operations/managing-excellence/2019-state-health-assessment.pdf

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WRITTEN BY GERARD BULLEN
FEBRUARY 23, 2021

Gerard has been writing exclusively for the U.S. substance addiction treatment industry for many years, providing a range of medically-reviewed work, including white papers, long-form, and short-form content articles, and blog posts for accredited addiction treatment centers. A member of the American Medical Writers Association, Gerard’s specific focus is substance addiction (an area that has impacted Gerard’s personal life in several ways), and he is particularly drawn to the topics of professional, evidence-based treatment, new and alternative therapies, and enabling readers to find their own sustainable, long-term recovery. Gerard lives and works in Maryland, U.S., he’s happily married, and a proud father. His interests include hiking with the family, reading fiction (from the classics to virtually all of the current NYT bestseller list), American and British film classics, and his beloved dogs, Toby and Coco, both rescued from the local pound.

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