Alcohol deaths rose 25% during first year of pandemic, data shows

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A new study reveals that the number of alcohol-related deaths in the United States rose by more than 25% between 2019 and 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, affecting almost every family.

According to research published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 78,927 people died in the U.S. due to alcohol-related reasons in 2019. That number increased to 99,017 in 2020, an increase of 25.5%.

Co-authors including Aaron White, Jen Castle and Patricia Powell of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism compiled the report based on U.S. mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

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In a statement to CNN, White, the lead author, indicated that she and her colleagues are not surprised by the results.

“It’s unfortunate, but we sort of expected to see something like this,” he added.

The study, which identified deaths as alcohol-related if an alcohol-induced cause was listed as an underlying or contributing cause, found that alcohol-related deaths accounted for 2.8% of all deaths in 2019 and 3% in 2020.

The research also found that while the death rates from alcoholism increased among all age groups, those between 35 and 44 years old saw the most pronounced jump in alcohol-related deaths. Among this group of adults, the alcoholism death rate roses from 22.9 to 32 per 100,000, or 39.7%.

In the age group of 25 to 34 years, the rate increased from 11.8 to 16.1 per 100 000, or 37.0%. The alcohol-related death rate increased from 13.7 to 17.5 per 100 000, or 27.3%, among females, while rising from 42.1 to 52.6 per 100,000, or 25.1%, among males.

“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,” White said. “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 research also noted that “increased drinking to cope with pandemic-related stressors, shifting alcohol policies, and disrupted treatment access are all possible contributing factors.”

“Whether alcohol-related deaths will decline as the pandemic wanes, and whether policy changes could help reduce such deaths, warrants consideration,” the report stated.

Additionally, the study showed deaths due to an underlying cause of alcohol-associated liver diseases increased from 24,106 to 29,504, or 22.4%, from 2019 to 2020. During that same time period, the number of deaths attributed to an underlying cause of alcohol-related mental and behavioral disorders increased from 11,261 to 15,211, or 35.1%. Opioid overdose deaths with alcohol as a contributing complication rose by 40.8%, from 8,503 to 11,969.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention said last week that the pandemic and “related policies to mitigate the spread of the virus aggravated a host of factors that tend to increase the risk for substance abuse.” 

In a report, ERLC explained that “many people experienced sudden loss of income and employment” while there was “an increase in time spent at home alone or with dependents, leading to increased levels of stress.”

The ERLC also noted that data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that the sales of alcoholic beverages in general in 2020 and 2021 peaked with a 15% increase compared with the 2017-2019 three-year average. At the same time, the sales of spirits peaked at a 30% increase. The National Institute on Drug Abuse looked at the monthly per-capita sales of alcoholic beverages in 14 states when compiling the data.

Quoting the American Psychological Association, the ERLC added that opioid overdoses increased by 18% in the early months of the pandemic compared to the same months in 2019.

“The trend has continued throughout 2020, and more than 40 U.S. states saw increases in opioid-related mortality,” ERLC warned. 

In October 2020, a study titled “Mental Health Disorders Related to COVID-19–Related Deaths” published in The Journal of the American Medical Association had warned that “accumulating evidence indicates another ‘second wave’ [of deaths and disruption associated with the pandemic] is building: rising rates of mental health and substance use disorders.” 

“This imminent mental health surge will bring further challenges for individuals, families, and communities, including increased deaths from suicide and drug overdoses,” the 2020 study predicted. “As with the first COVID-19 wave, the mental health wave will disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic individuals, older adults, lower socioeconomic groups of all races and ethnicities, and health care workers.”

ERLC encouraged Christians to be ready and willing to care for those who come to us with a substance abuse problem, proclaiming: “We can point them to the forgiveness and hope found in Christ while walking with them along the hard road to sobriety.”

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