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Stress, isolation and free time

As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into the year, more adults are drinking to cope, and alcohol sales have surged across the country, a new study says.

Parents, women, unemployed people, Black people and adults with mental health concerns increased their alcohol consumption between February and April, according to a study released from RTI International, a nonprofit research institute in Research Triangle Park.

“After the terrorist attacks on September 11 and also Hurricane Katrina, there was sustained increases in alcohol consumption,” said Carolina Barbosa, a health economist at RTI. “The weeks of isolation imposed by stay-at-home policies and the scale of the current pandemic are unmatched by these recent disasters.”

RTI surveyed nearly 1,000 people online in the United States last month to see how their alcohol consumption changed between February and April.

States across the country implemented different shelter-in-place measures beginning in March to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The respondents on average upped their daily alcohol intake from 0.74 drinks in February to 0.94 in April, RTI said.

About 35% reported excessive drinking in April, compared to 29% in February, and 27% reported binge drinking. The survey did not differentiate between different types of alcohol.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends women do not consume more than three drinks per day and seven drinks per week and men no more than four drinks per day and 14 drinks per week. RTI defined excessive drinking as anyone who drank more than this total.

Binge drinking, RTI said, is when a man consumes more than four drinks in two hours and a woman consumes over three in the same time frame.

Around 10% of respondents don’t drink at all, the study said.

“We also saw large increases in consumption among those who were not drinking in excess of recommended guidelines in February,” Barbosa said. “And this is especially concerning, because this is not people who always drank a lot suddenly drinking more, this is people who drank within the guidelines drinking a lot more.”

Nationwide alcohol sales climbed 26% between March and June this year compared to last year, according to the Nielsen Corp.

Alcohol consumption weakens immune systems and makes people more susceptible to COVID-19, RTI said.

A look at the numbers

The study breaks down the respondents’ answers by race. White people reported consuming about one drink per day, which is more than any other racial group, but Black people reported the most excessive drinking. RTI said 66% of survey respondents were white, 19% were Hispanic, 9% were Black and 7% were “other.”

“As we saw with females, non-white respondents increased more in relative terms because those groups drank less than white respondents did in February,” said William Dowd, a research economist at RTI.

Women reported more binge and excessive drinking than men between February and April. Unemployed people drank twice as much as people with jobs in the last few months.

About 30% of respondents said they drank seven more days per month than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“About a quarter of the sample reported having kids in the household, and three quarters did not. Respondents with kids reported an increase in drinks per day that was more than four times as large on average than the subgroup without kids,” Dowd said.

People who live in the West drank 0.35 more drinks in April than February, the highest increase of any region. People who live in the South reported consuming 0.16 more drinks than usual during this period.

Why are people drinking more?

RTI believes people drank more in April than February because people had more leisure time and were stressed about the coronavirus pandemic. Lax alcohol policies made it easier for these people to buy alcohol, Barbosa said.

“After the enactment of stay-at-home orders in many states and the relaxation of several state alcohol regulations, alcohol consumption, including drinking above the recommended guidelines and binge drinking, increased,” Barbosa said.

State officials in Maryland, New Jersey and New York deemed liquor stores essential, and restaurants in New York, Vermont, Nebraska, Colorado and California can sell drinks for takeout and delivery.

Long-term effects

Alcohol consumption is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States behind tobacco and poor diets, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Almost 6% of deaths worldwide in 2012 were connected to alcohol consumption, the World Health Organization said.

“(A) big question is whether relaxed rules on alcohol sales can become permanent after the pandemic,” Barbosa said. “If these measures are not reversed post-pandemic, they have the potential to increase population-level alcohol consumption and corresponding harms for the long term.”

Kurtis Taylor, the executive director of the Alcohol/Drug Council of North Carolina, said the coronavirus pandemic is causing stress and anxiety that makes some people want to drink more.

“I think that the shelter-in-place aspect has had devastating and long-term effects – many that we haven’t seen the full results from yet,” Taylor said in a statement. “People are developing issues that will not be easily shaken.”

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