Over the last two years, the United States witnessed a steep increase in alcohol use among adults. According to research from the Journal of the American Medical Association, those aged 30 and over experienced a 14% increase, with women seeing the steepest rise in heavy drinking — a whopping 41% during the pandemic. The research also highlighted the fact that overdose and relapse rates rose among those who had pre-existing addictive conditions.
There is a multitude of factors that contributed to the increase in alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anxiety and depression rose dramatically among the general population, and alcohol consumption often increases for those who use it as a way to cope. “Stress and boredom likely were main drivers for a substantial increase in alcohol intake,” explains Dr. Jagpreet Chhatwal, associate director of the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Institute for Technology Assessment and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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Measures that were designed to help businesses stay afloat during the pandemic may have also affected drinking habits. According to Chhatwal, “cocktails-to-go laws that allowed customers to pick up mixed cocktails at local bars and direct-to-consumer laws that allowed liquor stores to deliver alcohol directly to homes” point to a potential link between access and consumption.
Regardless of the reason, these numbers are going to translate to significant morbidity and mortality rates for Americans in the future. According to new a study by researchers at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital published in Hepatology, due to the pandemic uptick in alcohol use, there will be close to 20,000 cases of liver failure, 1,000 cases of liver cancer and 8,000 deaths over the next two decades.
Addressing this pressing issue will be complicated in a country that has long glamorized the use of alcohol among its population. From Super Bowl advertisements to film and music references, alcohol has long been associated with celebration, letting loose and having a good time. Consuming alcohol, even excessively, is normalized to the point that it is integrated into daily life on a regular basis: after-work happy hours, relaxing at home, birthdays, weddings, sporting events, etc. Alcohol has become so fused into the fabric of American society that in 2019, the industry was already worth over $250 billion.
Putting a positive spin on alcohol is dangerous because it creates the mirage that there are no negative consequences on a person’s physical or mental health, which is both untrue and potentially harmful. “Not everyone is aware of the safe drinking limits or realizes when to stop,” says Chhatwal. Excessive drinking can cause a myriad of health problems including high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, increase the risk for cancer, liver and GI problems, a weakened immune system, depression and anxiety as well as socialization issues and job loss.
In a country where more than 14 million American adults 18 years and older had a clinical alcohol use disorder, according to statistics from National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the challenge will be raising awareness, confronting a booming business model and reevaluating new laws that made alcohol more accessible during the pandemic.
In Chhatwal’s opinion, “One of the foremost steps is to create awareness about the risk of an increase in alcohol consumption, especially high-risk drinking among women and minority populations who are more vulnerable.” He also stressed the importance of enlisting primary care providers to do more extensive screening for alcohol consumption patterns. There is also an obligation to take a hard look at new laws: “We need to evaluate the effect of cocktail-to-go and direct-to-consumer laws — if such laws contribute to increased drinking then there is a need to make policy-level changes.”
*[The Wider Lens provides commentary on trending stories in the world of health, covering a wide variety of topics in medicine and health care.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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