Whenever there’s a catastrophic disruption to “normal life” people tend to lose themselves in the nearest bottle of booze. Whether it’s warfare, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, economic distress or, of course, a pandemic outbreak — when humans get stressed out, they start drinking.
It’s a coping mechanism. One that’s been a crutch for humanity to lean on for thousands of years; through the fall of great civilizations, through natural disasters and through World Wars. Now, between all of the current social disruption, isolation, limited social support, limited access to medical care, and the daunting domestic and global economic impacts looming on our horizon, there’s a lot to drink about.
And, scientists are worried that this current situation could make humanity’s coping mechanism a serious problem. The era of COVID might herald an era of alcoholism as well.
Experts at McLean Hospital recently published an article, in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, expressing their fears over this potential issue. They examined the possibility of an alcoholism explosion, while also exploring ways to moderate and reduce rising alcohol consumption rates.
“We hope this article will call attention to the pandemic's effects on alcohol use and offer mitigating approaches to this under-recognized public health concern," the article’s co-author Dawn E. Sugarman, a research psychologist in the Center of Excellence in Alcohol, Drugs, and Addiction at McLean Hospital.
Sugarman and her associate, Shelly F. Greenfield, director of the Alcohol, Drug, and Addiction Clinical and Health Services Research Program at McLean Hospital, both noted: no one yet knows what the full impact of COVID-19 on America’s drinking habits will be.
But, it probably isn’t going to be any good.
Just look at the numbers: when in-person dining and bars closed back in March, liquor stores saw a 41% increase over the previous year’s sales. And online alcohol sales? They skyrocketed an insane 339% of what they were, at the same time the previous year. A lot of that was simply replacing drinks they would have otherwise been purchased at an establishment — however, Anheuser-Busch’s own research found that 45% of consumers were drinking from the comfort of their own homes more, week over week as people formed new drinking habits.
No matter how you slice it, America is drinking more under the present circumstances. Which shouldn’t really surprise anyone — 2020’s been a motherfucker of a year, and it’s still a long way from being over, yet. Meaning, the drinking is still a long way from tapering off.
So, what can be done to mitigate America’s drinking problem?
In their paper Sugarman and Greenfield suggest that the local, state and federal governments invest in education: about managing stress or anxiety without turning to booze; drinking safely at home in isolation; and recognizing when to be concerned about someone.
They also call for better alcohol use disorder screenings from health professionals, and recommend greater use of “telehealth” services to provide greater access to healthcare. They also point out the importance of ensuring people have adequate insurance for treatment (something that could be an issue, considering so many lost their jobs and their employer-provided health insurance).
"Increasing identification of harmful alcohol use in patients and intervening early are key components of addressing this problem.” Greenfield says. “In addition, recognition of the problem from policymakers could lead to changes in federal regulations — such as we have seen with telehealth — and improvements in access to health care.”
No one knows how bad America’s drinking problem is about to get. But scientists like Greenfield and Sugarman seem to be concerned about it.
Se la vie…