March 22, 2022 — The number of Americans who died from alcohol-related causes increased dramatically during the first year of the pandemic, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Alcohol-related deaths rose above 99,000 in 2020 — a 25% increase from the nearly 79,000 deaths documented in 2019. That compares with an average annual increase of 3.6% between 1999 and 2019. Deaths began increasing in recent years, but only by 5% between 2018 and 2019.
Researchers have pointed to several factors, including an increase in drinking to cope with stress, higher rates of binge drinking, more emergency room visits for alcohol withdrawal, and delays in treatment.
“The assumption is that there were lots of people who were in recovery and had reduced access to support that spring and relapsed,” Aaron White, PhD, one of the study authors and a senior scientific adviser at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told The New York Times.
“Stress is the primary factor in relapse, and there is no question there was a big increase in self-reported stress, and big increases in anxiety and depression, and planet-wide uncertainty about what was coming next,” he said. “That’s a lot of pressure on people who are trying to maintain recovery.”
White and colleagues analyzed information from death certificates, focusing on the deaths that included alcohol as a contributing cause. A small number also involved COVID-19.
Among adults younger than 65, alcohol-related deaths slightly outnumbered COVID-19 deaths in 2020, the researchers found. About 74,400 Americans ages 16-64 died from alcohol-related causes, as compared with 74,075 people under age 65 who died from COVID-19.
Overall, the 25% increase for alcohol-related deaths in 2020 outpaced the rate of increase of deaths from all causes, which was 16.6%. Alcohol-related deaths also increased for everyone — men, women, and every ethnic and racial group. Deaths among men and women increased at the same rate, though the absolute number of deaths among men was higher. Americans ages 25-44 had the greatest increase in alcohol-related deaths in 2020, rising nearly 40%.
Based on the available data for 2021, alcohol-related deaths remained high during the second year of the pandemic, White told the newspaper. Researchers wonder whether the drinking trends will decrease in 2022 or continue to remain high.
“Maybe they’ll go back down,” he said. “But this could be the new norm.”
Total alcohol sales by volume increased by nearly 3% in the U.S. in 2020, marking the largest annual increase in sales since 1968. If the trends continue, White said, more focus should be placed on teaching people how to cope with stress in a healthier way.
“We are entering an era in public health where we are talking more about promoting wellness and building resilient people,” he said. “What we are doing now is not sufficient. We need to help people live meaningful purpose-filled lives.”