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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.

Go deeper

Oct 14, 2021 - Health

FDA panel unanimously endorses Moderna boosters for certain populations

A pharmacist prepares to give a COVID-19 booster vaccination. Photo: Karwai Tang/Getty Images

Members of the Food and Drug Administration's vaccine expert panel on Thursday endorsed boosters for Moderna recipients who are at high risk of severe COVID-19, occupational exposure to COVID-19 or are 65 years and older.

Why it matters: The unanimous decision mirrors the FDA conditions for those who qualify for a Pfizer booster.

Oct 15, 2021 - Health

Maine health care staff won't get unemployment benefits if they refuse vaccine

A pharmacy technicinan specialist at Maine Medical Center in South Portland, Maine. Photo: Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Maine health care workers who face firing for defying COVID vaccine requirements will not be eligible to receive unemployment benefits, AP reports.

Why it matters: The notice comes as Maine's hospitals suffer labor shortages partly related to the state's vaccine mandate. One of the state's biggest hospitals has had to turn away trauma and pediatric patients and shutter an entire department, according to a local CBS affiliate.

Updated 15 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: The end of the Omicron wave is in sight — Transplants rebound from COVID lull — Omicron hits American hospitals disproportionately hard
  2. Vaccines: WHO: No evidence that healthy children, teens need boosters — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies— Government website for free COVID tests launches early
  4. World: WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older
  5. Variant tracker