Americans are using alcohol to cope with pandemic stress: Nearly 1 in 5 report 'heavy drinking'

·3 min read

More than 18 months into the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., nearly 1 in 5 Americans is consuming an unhealthy amount of alcohol, a new survey suggests.

About 17% of respondents reported "heavy drinking" in the past 30 days, according to the survey conducted by analytics firm The Harris Poll and commissioned by Alkermes, an Ireland-based biopharmaceutical company.

The survey was conducted online from March 30 to April 7 among 6,006 U.S. adults ages 21 and older. Of those, 1,003 adults reported "heavy drinking."

"Heavy drinking" was defined as having had two heavy drinking days in a single week at least twice in the previous 30 days. A "heavy drinking day" was defined as four or more drinks containing alcohol for women and five or more drinks containing alcohol for men.

Dr. Neeraj Gandotra, chief medical officer at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said the study's findings were "not surprising." Almost 90% of individuals with substance use disorder are not in treatment, and alcohol and drug use typically worsen with isolation, Gandotra said.

Several studies have suggested Americans are buying more alcohol and drinking more frequently during the coronavirus pandemic.

A study by the Rand Corp. last fall found the frequency of alcohol consumption in the U.S. rose 14% compared with before the pandemic. Women, in particular, increased heavy drinking days by 41%, according to the study.

Another study by researchers at the University of Arizona found "dramatic increases in harmful alcohol consumption" over the first six months of the pandemic. Greater alcohol consumption was most associated with job loss because of COVID-19, according to the study.

"While we are still learning how the COVID pandemic is impacting alcohol use, it seems clear that some people are drinking more while others are drinking less. In many studies, increases in consumption during the pandemic were linked to increases in stress," National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Director Dr. George Koob told USA TODAY.

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Stress of world events and anxiety about the future can increase drinking and exacerbate symptoms of alcohol use disorder, as seen in the wake of previous disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, Koob wrote in a blog post last year.

As the world continues to battle COVID-19, it's not clear if the trend is continuing.

"Dozens of relatively small survey studies have assessed alcohol consumption at various points during the pandemic, but it is unclear from these cross-sectional studies whether patterns of consumption are changing for people as the pandemic drags on," Koob said. "It is entirely possible that levels of consumption continued to increase over time for some people while decreasing for others."

According to the new Harris Poll survey, many respondents who reported heavy drinking said that, over the past 12 months, they experienced negative mental, physical and psychosocial impacts.

Three in 10 said they continued to drink despite it making them feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem. About 1 in 4 reported they continued to drink after experiencing a memory blackout. More than 1 in 5 experienced withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol were wearing off. And 23% gave up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to them in order to drink.

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