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Hangover From Alcohol Boom Could Last Long After Pandemic Ends

Sep 11, 2020
Originally published on September 11, 2020 2:44 pm

When the coronavirus swept the country, a lot of things government did in response were controversial. Politicians fought over mask-wearing rules and quarantine restrictions.

But one policy, making sure Americans have ready access to alcohol, was truly bipartisan.

"The State Liquor Authority is going to change its rules that will allow bars, restaurants and distilleries to sell their products off-premises," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, in mid-March.

Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis followed suit in May. "I allowed [bars and restaurants] to deliver alcohol, I think that's been pretty popular, we're probably going to keep that going," he told reporters.

Alcohol sales a bright spot in a troubled economy

It worked. While many bars and clubs faced new restrictions for dine-in customers, a lot of Americans still found ways to have a drink or two with friends. Quarantine cocktail parties became a new thing online.

The pandemic also drove a surge in online sales using phone apps that connect consumers with local liquor stores for home delivery.

"You know especially in the early days when lockdowns started getting put in place, we saw a pretty dramatic increase," said Liz Paquette with a company called Drizly that raised $50 million last month to expand operations.

Paquette declined to say how many people use the app to arrange home alcohol deliveries, but said the company has seen a surge in new customers. "As we stand today, we're up around 350%" in sales over the same time last year, Paquette told NPR.

According to Nielsen's market data, total alcohol sales outside of bars and restaurants have surged roughly 24% during the pandemic.

They found sales of spirits with higher alcohol content rose even faster, a more than 27% increase over last year.

Past traumatic events brought rise in alcohol dependency

It has been an economic lifeline for many businesses, but health care experts caution there could be serious consequences for millions of Americans that linger long after COVID-19 has passed.

"I get worried when people think about alcohol as a tool to unwind, a tool to cope with stress and anxiety," said Dr. Lorenzo Leggio, a researcher with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Leggio told NPR that for societal reasons, alcohol feels less risky than other drugs — including opioids, meth and cocaine — that have also seen a surge in use during the pandemic.

For many people, a cocktail or a beer in the evening can be a normal and comforting part of their social lives.

But alcohol-related illnesses kill more than 88,000 Americans each year, according to the NIAAA. That's more than all drug overdose deaths combined.

Leggio worries that long after the pandemic passes, people will struggle with patterns of excessive drinking and addiction that start now while they're isolating at home.

"We know from previous traumatic events, Katrina and 9/11, people who survived some of them developed alcohol use disorder relating to the increase in stress," he said.

Warning signs include a strong urge or need to drink or drinking more than you planned. Then it may be time to talk to your doctor.

Elizabeth Marshall says she relapsed and began using alcohol while isolating during the pandemic.
Brian Mann / NPR

Millions of Americans at higher risk

Most at risk are the roughly 15 million Americans estimated by the federal government to already suffer from alcohol use disorder.

"I relapsed during the pandemic. I picked up that first drink and I was scared," said Elizabeth Marshall, who is in recovery in Ogdensburg, N.Y.

As the coronavirus spread, therapy programs were canceled, leaving people who experience alcohol dependency isolated and scared.

"It drove my depression, like, skyrocketed it," Marshall said. "It didn't make sense to me how they could shut down all of the places that are trying to help and keeping going with all the alcohol sales."

The surge of drinking during the pandemic comes at a time when Americans are already consuming more alcohol, a roughly 20% increase that began in the 1990s.

The NIAAA's Leggio says these two trends could leave more Americans vulnerable to the coronavirus.

"People with excessive alcohol use have an increased risk of respiratory infections," Leggio noted. "They also have an increased risk of complications relating to respiratory infections."

The World Health Organization issued a similar warning this spring, urging governments to reconsider making alcohol widely available during the pandemic and to instead step up counseling and treatment opportunities.

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, we should really ask ourselves what risks we are taking in leaving people under lockdown in their homes with [alcohol]," said Carina Ferreira-Borges with the WHO's Alcohol and Illicit Drugs Programme in a statement.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

So there's a lot of drinking going on during this pandemic. Hard liquor sales are up roughly 30%. That has helped bars, restaurants and liquor stores survive, but experts say it also means serious health risks for millions of Americans that could last long after the coronavirus passes. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When the coronavirus swept the country, a lot of things government did in response were super controversial - mask-wearing rules, for example, and quarantine restrictions - but one policy was truly bipartisan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: Order from your favorite restaurant. Order from your favorite bar. Order from your favorite winery.

MANN: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo scrambled to help people get their glass of wine or their evening cocktail, even when sheltering in place. So did Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: I allowed them to deliver alcohol. I think that's been pretty popular. We're probably going to keep that going. Maybe...

MANN: It worked. While many bars and clubs face new restrictions, a lot of us still found ways to have a drink or two with friends. Quarantine cocktail parties like this one with YouTube influencer Marissa Nicole became a new thing online.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARISSA NICOLE: Why do you all have such small drinks? I'm going to go get more.

MANN: Total alcohol sales outside of bars and restaurants have surged roughly 24% during the pandemic. That's according to market data collected by Nielsen. It's been an economic lifeline for businesses. And for a lot of us, a beer in the evening or a gin and tonic on the weekend feels like a taste of normal life. But there's a dark side to America's drinking boom. And even if it feels like a total buzzkill, health care experts say this is one more thing in our muddled world that could really hurt people. Elizabeth Marshall lives in upstate New York, where she's struggled with alcohol addiction for decades.

ELIZABETH MARSHALL: I had relapsed during the pandemic. I picked up that first drink, and I was scared. It takes one time, and that's it.

MANN: The federal government says roughly 15 million Americans are addicted to alcohol. As the coronavirus spread, therapy programs were canceled. That left people like Marshall isolated and scared.

MARSHALL: It drove my depression - like, skyrocketed it. Like, I isolated. I didn't want to go anywhere. I didn't want to do anything.

MANN: And she says, alcohol was everywhere.

MARSHALL: It didn't make any sense to me how they could shut down all of the places that are trying to help and keep going with the alcohol sales.

MANN: You may be thinking this isn't a concern for you or your friends. Maybe you're just having one more glass of wine a night than normal. But Dr. Lorenzo Leggio, a researcher with the National Institutes of Health, says it's not just people already struggling with alcohol addiction who are at risk.

LORENZO LEGGIO: I get worried when people think about alcohol as a tool to unwind, as a tool to cope with stress and anxiety.

MANN: Leggio says alcohol feels different from other high-risk drugs, like a normal and even comforting part of our social lives. But he worries that long after the pandemic passes, people will struggle with patterns of drinking and addiction that start now while they're isolating at home.

LEGGIO: We know from previous traumatic events - Katrina, 9/11 - people who survived, some of them, developed alcohol use disorder related to the increase in stress.

MANN: Leggio says warning signs include a strong urge or need to drink. Or if you drink more than you planned, then it may be time to talk to your doctor. The surge of drinking during the pandemic comes at a time when Americans were already drinking more, the steady increase that's worried researchers for decades. Leggio says these trends together could leave more Americans vulnerable to the coronavirus.

LEGGIO: People with excessive alcohol use have an increased risk of respiratory infections, and they also have an increased risk of the complications related to the respiratory infections.

MANN: Again, scientists generally agree having an occasional drink is no big deal. But as the pandemic drags on into autumn, this may be a great year for a lot of us to put sober October on our calendars.

Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.