Alcohol’s “New Normal”
In the last few years, our world, our communities and even our neighborhoods have changed more than we could have ever envisioned. For some people, this has meant that they have looked for ways to take better care of themselves. But for others, it has meant that the added stress has caused them to look for unhealthy ways to cope.
Unfortunately, one method some people have always chosen to cope with stress is consuming alcohol. In the early days of the COVID pandemic, alcohol consumption rose drastically as people coped with business and school shutdowns. This wave of increased alcohol consumption will continue to have consequences for years to come.
New Trend Slow to Return to Normal
There were a number of surveys of alcohol consumption habits throughout 2020 and 2021. At the beginning of the pandemic restrictions, the media reported that online alcohol sales increased 262% during the week of 21 March 2019 (compared to the same week a year prior). That was a week after a national emergency was declared and days after California issued statewide stay-at-home orders. So it’s logical that anyone that wanted to drink at that time might be ordering alcohol through online services.
This was despite the fact that most states considered liquor stores to be “essential businesses” so they stayed open. Indeed, for a person addicted to alcohol, a liquor store is indeed essential to prevent them from going into unsupervised and even life-threatening withdrawal.
A detailed survey completed in May 2020 showed that two-thirds of the individuals surveyed at that time were drinking more. Close to half of those surveyed said it was because of their increased stress and a third said that it was because they had a greater availability of alcohol. Three out of ten were coping with their boredom.
The Most Severely Stressed Were Drinking More
When a person reported that they were experiencing “very much” or “extreme” stress due to the COVID pandemic, they also reported consuming significantly more alcohol than the others who were surveyed.
Actually, about one-fifth of those surveyed said they were drinking less than before the pandemic. They explained that they didn’t have as much alcohol availability, or that they had less free time or less money available.
By mid-June 2020, both men and women reported an increase in heavy drinking. Non-Hispanic white individuals who were surveyed, for example, who had reported that they engaged in heavy drinking on 6.5 days a month before the pandemic increased their heavy drinking by one day a month.
As the pandemic progressed, the statistics shifted again. A later study of alcohol consumption patterns was published on January 28, 2022. This study found that as the pandemic continued, men were drinking less while alcohol consumption among women remained steady. Alcohol consumption by men declined 20% during this period.
Paradoxically, problems resulting from alcohol consumption increased. Researchers said that this increase in problems may have been the reason men began to reduce their consumption.
The Biggest Shift in Alcohol Consumption
Probably the biggest change in alcohol consumption in recent years is the fact that women are catching up to men. In most categories of substance abuse, men have always used more drugs and have gone to rehab far more often than women, often by a ratio of 2 to 1. In 2019, for example, nine million men suffered from alcohol use disorder compared to 5.5 million women (6.8% of men aged 12 and older compared to 3.9% of women).
In the years leading up to the pandemic, only about 28% of the total number of people dying from alcohol-related causes were women. For example, looking at the trends from 2011 to 2015, the annual average number of people dying from alcohol poisoning (meaning they died solely from an alcohol overdose) was 1,735 men and 553 women. Even more striking, of the 1,609 people typically dying from liver cancer each year, 1,545 were men and only 64 were women.
The First Report of this Change
Then in 2016, there was a prominent report that this long-term trend was changing. An international study published in the British Journal of Medicine reported that the gap between men’s drinking and women’s drinking was narrowing in certain age groups.
Among the world’s older citizens, men were 2.2 times more likely to drink to a problematic level than women. But for those born in the late 1900s, men were only 1.1 times more likely to drink problematically than women.
As young adult women begin to keep up with men in their problematic drinking, it is very likely that the numbers of both genders suffering serious problems as a result of drinking will also even out.
Because young adult women are in their prime child-bearing years, this could mean that there will be an upswing in babies born that are affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Also, because it takes several years to several decades for alcohol to inflict its most deadly harm, we could also start seeing more women join the ranks of those severely harmed by alcohol.
This could mean more women will start suffering:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Liver disease
- Mental health problems
Despite the surge in alcohol sales at the beginning of the pandemic restrictions, by the end of 2020, sales were steeply down at $358 million compared to 2019’s $396 million. But 2021 put this statistic back on the same steep growth pattern as seen since 2013. Sales in 2021 were $415 million. The difference is that now, more people are drinking at home and fewer people are drinking in bars and restaurants.
Protecting Our Future Children
It’s unhealthy for individuals of either sex to drink excessively, and both men and women can suffer life-threatening health conditions as a result. Even if ill health is not the result of alcohol consumption, problematic drinking can ruin careers, families and lives. Both men and women need support and help when they drink too much.
Young women in their child-bearing years may need help the most urgently. These young women may recover from their addictions and start enjoying productive, sober lives. But if they drink during pregnancy, it’s possible that the harm done could last the entirety of their children’s lives. For this reason, it should be the highest priority to help young women reduce their drinking and indeed, eliminate it completely during pregnancy.
- NIAAA, “Alcohol Facts and Statistics,” 2021. NIAAA.gov.
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, “Alcohol Consumption during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Cross-Sectional Survey of US Adults,” 2020. NIH.gov.
- Wiley Online Library, "Alcohol during the pandemic: Steady for women, down for men,” 2022. Wiley Library.
- JAMA Network, ”Changes in Adult Alcohol Use and Consequences During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the US,” 2021. jamanetwork.com.
- CDC, ”Annual Average for United States 2011-2015, Alcohol-Attributable Deaths Due to Excessive Alcohol Use,” 2019. nccd.cdc.org.
- BMJ, ”Women catching up with men in alcohol consumption and its associated harms,” 2016. Bmjopen.bmj.com.
- RAND Corporation, ”Alcohol Consumption Among Men Declined During Pandemic; Men and Women Report More Alcohol-Related Problems,” 2022. RAND.org.
- Zippia, ”15 U.S. Beverage Industry Statistics,” 2022. zippia.com.