As the United States settled into their residences amidst statewide stay-at-home orders, media outlets reported skyrocketing alcohol use during COVID-19. Headlines in major news publishers pointed to rising percentages of alcohol sales during March and April. Concern for the country’s consumption levels grew, too.
Newsweek reported a 55 percent increase in alcohol sales over a single week at the start of the pandemic, pulled from a Nielsen report. Dozens of articles referenced the statistic and voiced worries about the impact of soaring alcohol use.
Another Nielsen report released at the start of May cleared up some confusion surrounding these headlines. Though take-home alcohol sales rose at incredible rates, it happened in the wake of widespread business closures. People could no longer drink at restaurants, bars, sporting events, concerts, and other public gatherings.
Drinking simply shifted from on-premise consumption to at-home use. Those who wanted to drink had to buy their alcohol at stores instead of drinking on-premise like they usually would. Alcohol sales didn’t spike in the way headlines suggested they had; the places where drinking occurs changed.
What does the difference between the two mean? If alcohol use didn’t rise the same way reports initially showed, are there still reasons to be concerned? The shift in drinking behaviors doesn’t quite mean that drinkers are completely in the clear. What are the consequences of excessive alcohol use amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?
The Impact of COVID-19 on Alcohol Consumption
Headlines plastered across major media outlets at the start of April had people believing the country was drinking its way through the pandemic. There were digital drinking games, Zoom happy hours, video chat pandemic pong, and more. People joked on social media about quarantine and other COVID-themed mixed drinks.
Articles pointed to these jokes to back up the startling Nielsen statistics. Addiction and alcoholism recovery activists worried about the glorification of binge drinking and alcohol abuse. Widespread alcohol use made sense in the face of worldwide unrest.
The 55 percent spike in outlet sales continued rising as time passed. By the end of March, there was a 331 percent increase compared to the previous year. Sales continued climbing and reached an alarming 477 percent year-over-year increase by the end of April. It’s clear to see why the country appeared to have an alarming alcohol problem on its hands.
Nielsen’s clarifying article relieved some of the worry ignited by its initial statistics at the start of April. The shift from on-premise to at-home drinking explained the incredible spike in alcohol sales. But this doesn’t do much to address the alcohol problems that existed before the pandemic even began.
Does bringing the drinking home really make the country’s underlying drinking problem any better?
Bringing the Binge Drinking Home
Binge drinking is a serious problem throughout the United States. The effects of alcohol abuse gripped the country before the COVID-19 pandemic ever took place. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explain that binge drinking is the most common, expensive, and fatal form of drinking in the country.
Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that raises an individual’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to the legal limit (0.08 g/dl) or higher. It takes about 5 drinks for men and 4 drinks for women over two hours to reach this level.
More than 16 percent of adults in the country, or 1 in 6 people, binge drink 4 times or more each month. There are serious problems associated with regular binge drinking, including health problems, unintentional injuries, and more.
People who binge drink often do so while out with friends at bars, concerts, or restaurants. Since all public spaces have closed down for the most part, most drinking shifted to take place at home.
Nielsen’s report from May showed that people purchased alcohol in larger quantities than they did pre-pandemic. Box wine sales were 10 times higher and 1.75-liter spirits (or “handles”) were 23 times higher year-over-year. Having access to more alcohol at home could likely increase the chances of at-home binge drinking.
Bringing that pattern of drinking home may reduce the chances of some accidental injuries. For example, drunk driving incidents are far more unlikely due to drinking at home. But binge drinking at home raises the risk of other incidents.
Binge drinking is associated with higher chances of violent acts including abuse, intimate partner violence, homicide, and suicide. Heavy drinking while stuck at home puts partners, children, and other family members at a greater risk of experiencing violence.
Isolation’s Effects on Mental Health and Recovery
The statewide stay-at-home orders also led to people spending far more time alone than they did before. Technology and social media keep people connected digitally but it isn’t the same as spending time with people in-person.
Humans are social by nature. Even introverts need time with other people. Long-term isolation can lead to lasting effects on mental health. Loneliness was already at an all-time high before the pandemic and stay-at-home orders drove more distance between people.
Psychiatrists and clinicians worried about the mental health effects of the COVID-19 crisis. The overwhelming amount of numbers and data and statistics along with state-mandated social distancing instilled a sense of fear and panic. Stay-at-home orders keep people isolated while working through these heavy emotions. Loneliness is sure to set in.
A meta-analysis conducted by Julianne Holt-Lunstad at Brigham Young University revealed that loneliness heightens health risks as much as a condition like alcohol use disorder. Now combine the forced social isolation with binge drinking at home and the potential problem becomes even more serious.
Seeking Support During Stressful Times
You aren’t alone if you find it challenging to stay calm during these difficult times. If you’re already on edge and feeling alone, adding alcohol into the equation isn’t going to help. It might provide some temporary relief but it does nothing to relieve stress in the long run.
Individuals in recovery from alcohol or substance use disorder also face a unique challenge. Many rely on connection with other people in recovery through groups or meetings to stay drug- and alcohol-free. Closures and stay-at-home orders caused most of these groups to take a hiatus for the sake of public health.
Some groups shifted to gathering on Zoom to substitute the closure of their meeting places. Like staying connected through technology and social media, though, video conferencing lacks a personal connection. The limited interpersonal support combined with the high stress of the pandemic raises the risk of relapse for these individuals.
The world is experiencing the challenges of isolation at the same time. Though it isn’t quite the same as connecting with other people in person, technology has done its best to bridge the gap. You can still find support during these trying times through online meetings, support groups, or teletherapy.
If you or your loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse, Lifeskills South Florida can help. Our team of professional’s work with the client and their family to design a customized treatment plan specific to each client’s unique needs. We use a comprehensive approach to treatment that incorporates elements of mindfulness, meditation, and integrated primary care – all which help to promote recovery, resiliency, and self-determination. If you would like more information on our program, please call our admissions team at 754-226-1571 or complete our contact form. Lifeskills South Florida is the place where second chances become new beginnings.