What to Do About Pandemic-fueled Alcohol Issues?

covid drinking

A new report about deaths related to drinking doesn’t bode well for the future—but there is reason for hope, based on lessons learned during COVID

By Jason Langendorf

A recent report revealed that the number of deaths involving alcohol in the U.S. increased during the first year of the COVID pandemic, aligning with existing research that pointed to a spike in alcohol consumption and associated harms over the same period. It all raises a pressing question: What do these alcohol-related woes mean for the coming years?

Published on March 18 on the JAMA Network, the report found a 25% increase in the rate of alcohol-related deaths between 2019 and 2020—a number that seems to correlate with the rise in drinking identified during the pandemic.

“Although the pandemic’s effects may dissipate, the economic, psychological and mental effects brought on by the pandemic may persist for much longer—therefore prolonging excess alcohol consumption.”

—Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer, American Addiction Centers

Authors of the JAMA report cited studies that had already found increases in the incidences of drinking to cope with stress, transplants for alcohol-related liver disease and ER visits for alcohol withdrawal during the pandemic’s first year. An examination of U.S. mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics confirmed a similar spike in deaths associated with alcohol use, which increased for all age groups.

“Alcohol is the fourth-leading cause of preventable death in the country, and it’s responsible for many more lives than opioid overdoses,” says Lawrence Weinstein, MD, chief medical officer at American Addiction Centers. “Everyone should know that, but it can be difficult to break through and disseminate the message as widely when fentanyl and even stronger substances are being found and taking the lives of children and adults who have no idea they’re encountering a fatal substance.”

The Road Ahead

There is plenty of data to suggest that alcohol consumption drastically increases during times of turmoil—and Weinstein even points to another pandemic of the recent past as evidence:

“This is something that has been seen before,” he says. “Researchers in China found that during the SARS epidemic in 2003, those who worked or lived in high-risk locations were more likely to use alcohol as a coping mechanism, and it was significantly associated with increased alcohol dependence and abuse symptoms three years after the outbreak.”

It doesn’t take a great leap in thinking, then, to find the most worrisome takeaway from the JAMA report: The sticking power of addiction may lead to many more lives lost due to alcohol-related causes in the years ahead than we might have seen if not for the pandemic.

“Although the pandemic’s effects may dissipate,” Weinstein says, “the economic, psychological and mental effects brought on by the pandemic may persist for much longer—therefore prolonging excess alcohol consumption. The difficulties caused by the loss of employment, the loss of loved ones, lingering illnesses and other risk factors for alcohol misuse will remain a challenge for many people even when everything else has seemingly moved on.”

The acceptance of telehealth has been one positive to come out of the pandemic.

The ideal approach to treating alcohol use disorder (AUD) and helping people avoid excessive drinking during times of extreme stress has yet to be found, Weinstein says, “but it certainly begins with increased access to treatment and other services that individuals can rely upon prior to their drinking reaching such a detrimental state.”

Improved access to telehealth treatment and online resources such as psychotherapy, crisis support and community support—developments driven out of dire necessity during the pandemic—are modalities that offer long-term promise, Weinstein says. Stripping away antiquated restrictions and leaning in to proven methods of delivery to get existing treatment options to more people (and at earlier stages) seems like a reasonable enough start.

“Something significant learned throughout all of this is that many barriers to treatment were eliminated with the changes in treatment delivery,” he says. “And that’s something that should definitely be applied going forward.”

Top photo: Taylor Brandon; bottom photo: Yura Fresh