Jul 7, 2021 - Health

America's deepening drinking habit

Illustration of alcohol being poured over the U.S. flag
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Americans responded to the stress of the pandemic by drinking more — a lot more for some — and there's a risk that those habits could stick.

Why it matters: Excessive drinking is connected to a variety of health and social ills, but the growing ubiquity of alcohol in daily life can make cutting back harder than ever.

By the numbers: Americans started drinking more as soon as the pandemic began in full last year — data from Nielsen showed a 54% increase in national alcohol sales year-on-year in the week ending on March 21, 2020. And as the pandemic wore on, so did Americans' drinking.

Between the lines: It shouldn't be a surprise that many Americans responded to the stress of the pandemic by turning to the bottle — similar spikes were seen following traumatic events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. But pandemic tippling occurred against the backdrop of years of growing alcohol consumption and pushed some people toward the particularly destructive habit of solitary drinking.

  • After more than a decade of declining alcohol consumption, per-capita alcohol consumption increased by 8% between 1999 and 2017 and the number of alcohol-related deaths per year doubled to nearly 70,000.
  • Over the same years, alcohol seeped its way out of bars, restaurants and homes and into once-dry areas of daily life, with movie theaters, coffee shops and supermarkets selling alcohol and/or allowing consumption on site, while the rise of products like spiked seltzers and alcopops widened the market for booze.
  • Sales of liquor rose during the pandemic as well, which is especially worrying as distilled spirits are much easier to abuse than lower-alcohol beer or wine.
  • The unusually solitary nature of pandemic drinking was especially risky, as the writer Kate Julian described in a piece for the Atlantic last month, noting that "solo drinkers get more depressed as they drink."

Of note: While the pandemic was a global stressor, drinking more was mostly an American response — a recent survey found Europeans, with the exception of the British, drank less in the first months of the pandemic.

Flashback: We still have a long way to match the tippling habits of our forebearers — Julian noted the average American adult in 1830 drank three times as much as we do now, much of it whiskey that was often cheaper than milk.

What's next: It's too early to know how the return to in-person socializing will affect drinking trends, though a number of states have moved to extend more liberal pandemic-era alcohol regulations like allowing bars to sell to-go cocktails.

  • The historical American pattern has been to binge — often during periods of social stress and dislocation, like the Industrial Revolution — and then abstain, which means we could be in for a turn away from the hard stuff.

The bottom line: Alcohol is a drug, and an increasingly legal and available one that is the third-leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. And thanks to the pandemic, Americans are drinking more and they're drinking worse.

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