Alcohol and tobacco sales rose dramatically in the U.S. during the early stages of the pandemic, with possible major consequences for both physical and mental health, according to a new study.
The research led by scientists at the University of Southern California (USC) and published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, found that between April and June last year, sales of alcoholic beverages increased by 34% compared to the same period of time in 2019, with tobacco sales increasing by 13%.
“These are significant jumps, and show that the stress, boredom and loneliness caused by the pandemic may have led to increased alcohol and tobacco use,” said Brian P. Lee, MD, MAS, a hepatologist and liver transplant specialist with Keck Medicine and the USC Institute for Addiction Science, and lead author of the study.
Lee and colleagues decided to embark on the study after noticing that admissions for alcohol-related liver diseases such as cirrhosis or alcoholic hepatitis were significantly higher in 2020 than they would expect to see. When they looked at records from the Keck Hospital at USC, they found a 30% increase in admissions for these alcoh0l-related conditions compared to 2019.
The researchers used data from the Nielsen National Consumer Panel, which tracks the spending habits of approximately 70,000 households in the U.S., to confirm that the increased sales were a national trend. Crucially, Lee and his team found that the increased sales were the highest among younger adults, ethnic minorities, those with younger children and/or large families and those with higher incomes.
“We hypothesized that these subgroups, such as those with younger children, were buying more alcohol and tobacco because they felt more stressed than other segments of the population,” said Lee.
The study also found that sales of hard liquor had increased more compared to beer and wine and Lee and colleagues are conducting further studies to see whether these increased sales of alcohol and tobacco continued past the first three months of the pandemic.
“Among those drinking more during the pandemic, many are doing so in an effort to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression,” said George F. Koob, Ph.D., Director, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, MD. “While alcohol can temporarily dampen anxiety and other uncomfortable feelings, the relief is short-lived and negative emotions tend to increase above normal when the alcohol wears off,” Koob added.
Although increases in drinking habits as a means to cope with temporary stress is not necessarily indicative of an alcohol use disorder, Koob and others are concerned that the prolonged nature of the pandemic, combined with these early indications of increased alcohol sales, may put people at risk of developing these issues.
“Drinking to cope can culminate in a cycle in which the person consumes alcohol to ease discomfort, feels worse when the alcohol wears off, and then drinks again to reduce the misery caused by the alcohol itself,” said Koob.
Mental health has been a struggle for many people during the pandemic and there are increased concerns from many doctors and mental health professionals that excessive alcohol use may be exacerbating these problems in some people. Koob wants to stress that if anyone does feel that they need help with their mental health and/or problem drinking, they should not hesitate to access appropriate support, despite the ongoing pandemic.
“The pandemic has simultaneously placed a strain on mental health and removed familiar options for treatment and support that rely on in-person interactions. Our Institute is doing its best to convey to the public that they do not need to wait until the pandemic ends and in-person options fully return in order to receive help coping with mental health struggles or an unhealthy relationship with alcohol,” said Koob.
Several online resources are available from the NIAAA website for those seeking help and guidance. Rethinking Drinking guides users through the symptoms of an alcohol use disorders and helps them evaluate their relationship with alcohol. The NIAAA Treatment Navigator helps people locate online and in-person options for treatment and recovery support.
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