Research published on Friday in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that alcohol-related deaths in the US increased 25.5% between 2019 and the first year of the pandemic in 2020.
Previously, the average annual percent increase in alcohol-related deaths was 2.2% between 1999 and 2017.
In the US, 78,927 deaths involved alcohol in 2019, and 99,017 in 2020, including motor vehicle crashes caused by driving under the influence of alcohol.
Alcohol-related deaths comprise 2.8% and 3% of all deaths in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
“We’re not surprised. It’s unfortunate, but we sort of expected to see something like this,” Aaron White, lead author of the study and a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said.
“It’s not uncommon for people to drink more when they’re under more duress, and obviously, the pandemic brought a lot of added stress to people’s lives. In addition to that, it reduced a lot of the normal outlets people have for coping with stress, [like] social support and access to gyms.”
The researchers also found a 16.6% increase in deaths caused by any reason between 2019 and 2020. But the sudden spike in alcohol-related deaths surpassed what White termed an “unprecedented leap.”
The research methodology looked into death certificates of people who were 16 and over between 2019 and 2020, provided by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. The researchers identified all deaths where alcohol was listed as an underlying cause.
CDC’s provisional data for the first half of 2021 was also used, where researchers found that January 2021 presents the highest number of alcohol-related deaths between January 2019 and June 2021.
All age groups were observed in the data for the spike in alcohol-related deaths in 2020, but the most significant change was a nearly 40% increase among 35- to 44-year-olds.
Though men still dominate the category, the rate of women’s alcohol-related deaths is also accelerating.
“These measures have been escalating faster for women. That’s one of the things that’s been very clear over the last 20 years,” White said.
According to the CDC, just as drug overdose deaths reach record highs, opioid overdose deaths that involve alcohol also rose to 41% during the first year of the pandemic.
White added that overdoses from alcohol and overdoses of other drugs in which alcohol was involved are named second to liver disease as the top underlying factors for alcohol-related deaths. Liver disease makes up a third of deaths involving alcohol.
White also added that the increasing rate of deaths involving alcohol indicates increasing alcohol consumption.
“Nationwide, there was about a 3% increase in alcohol sales, which is the biggest increase … in 50 years,” he said.
However, White also expressed that death certificates “way underestimate” the role of alcohol in traffic deaths.
“Deaths involving alcohol reflect hidden tolls of the pandemic,” the researchers wrote in the study.
With new data, White highlights that care providers must look into what’s causing this spike, increase screening, and openly ask patients about their alcohol use.
“We need to help people learn how to cope in healthy ways,” he said. “It’s not enough to prevent unhealthy behavior. We need to go that next step and promote healthy behavior.”
Although the numbers are grim, White is somewhat optimistic: “I also see hope in this. We’re beginning to understand what needs to be done to turn this around.”