Alcohol consumption rising sharply during pandemic, especially among women


Joe Dinan felt an anxious pulse in his ears as he walked out of CVS and spotted the liquor store across the street. Having lost his job during the pandemic, he'd had plenty of time to run errands. But he couldn't shake how hopeless he felt, marooned from his own sense of purpose. And the liquor store was right where he'd left it. A small bottle of vodka won out over his recovery.

In the age of pandemic, uncertainty lingers in the air. Now, new data shows that during the COVID-19 crisis, American adults have sharply increased their consumption of alcohol, drinking on more days per month, and to greater excess. Heavy drinking among women especially has soared.

The study, released Tuesday by the RAND corporation and supported by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), compared adults' drinking habits from 2019 to now. Surveying 1,540 adults across a nationally representative panel, participants were asked about their shift in consumption between spring 2019 and spring 2020, during the virus' first peak.

Based on the results, experts say they're concerned about how people may be choosing to ease the pain and isolation wrought by the pandemic.

"The magnitude of these increases is striking," Michael Pollard, lead author of the study and a sociologist at RAND, told ABC. "People's depression increases, anxiety increases, [and] alcohol use is often a way to cope with these feelings. But depression and anxiety are also the outcome of drinking; it's this feedback loop where it just exacerbates the problem that it's trying to address."

Between 2019 and now during the pandemic, men and women both reported increasing the frequency of their binge drinking episodes, defined as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women within a couple of hours. For women, that count rose by half.

"To move the average up by that much means that some people are really increasing their binge drinking," Pollard said. "For women in particular it can often be an overlooked issue, but it is a real concern."

The study shows that not only has consumption spiked, but respondents also say they've experienced more adverse impacts as a result of their drinking.

Respondents were presented with 15 possible negative outcomes and asked to identify which were true for them. Among the yes-or-no options were, "I have been unhappy because of my drinking," "I have felt guilty or ashamed because of my drinking," "I have taken foolish risks when I have been drinking," and "My family has been hurt by my drinking."


From 2019 to 2020, the average number of the 15 questions women responded "yes" to nearly doubled, from two last year to more than three during the pandemic. In 2019, men on average responded "yes" to four of the questions, compared to roughly five in 2020.

"There is a history with events like 911, Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes and other catastrophes, that people then drink more, post-trauma," NIAAA Director Dr. George Koob told ABC. "Alcohol is a very effective pain killer. But when it wears off, that pain comes back with a vengeance."

Dinan, 42, has been working to get his drinking under control for the past seven years. He's gotten back on track now, but the stress of the pandemic has made it harder than ever before.

"It got to a point when everything just compounded, and I didn't know what to do," Dinan said. "When you're in recovery, you're told you shouldn't isolate, and now that's exactly what we've been told to do. We drink to hide from feelings, hide from life. We tend to isolate. Especially when addiction really gets advanced. Now people are isolated at home. And it presents a real challenge."

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