Jul 22, 2021 - COVID

The pandemic pushed Charlotteans to drink, a lot

ABC store at Park Road Shopping Center

North Carolina has 170 Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) boards, which run the state's 433 ABC stores.

The pandemic changed Charlotteans’ drinking habits. For some, increased alcohol consumption is leading to addiction and other serious health concerns.

The big picture: The effort to stop COVID-19’s spread led to isolation, and at their core, substance abuse issues are diseases of isolation, Atrium Health’s Addiction Services manager Matt Orlousky tells me. To make matters worse, addiction can be hard to identify, especially when people are spending more time alone.

Orlousky’s offices report an 8% increase in alcohol-related addiction diagnoses at the Ballantyne location and a 10% increase at the Charlotte location.

Research shows that Americans have significantly increased their drinking habits during the pandemic.

  • One survey found that women increased alcohol intake by 39% during the pandemic. So a woman who had six drinks a week pre-pandemic would’ve upped her intake to over eight drinks a week, which is higher than the recommended seven weekly drinks for average women.

By the numbers: Another way to look at the increase in consumption is to look at the ABC sales numbers.

Retail (in-store) ABC purchases at Mecklenburg County ABC stores are up, while purchases from businesses with liquor licenses are down. Bars and restaurants were closed for months-long periods during 2020, meaning most folks were doing any alcohol consumption at home.

Retail ABC sales in the county were higher every month in 2020 than the same month in 2019, and the trend continued into 2021, until a slight March dip. (Retail purchases were $2,800 less in March 2021 than March 2020.)

  • So far 2021’s ABC sales in the county are outpacing 2020 by over $7 million, and outpacing 2019 by almost $18 million.

Data: North Carolina ABC Commission; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Of note: CMPD tried to decrease interaction between officers and residents in non-emergency situations, so there weren’t as many opportunities for traffic stops that might’ve led to a DWI charge or drunk and disorderly charges.

Additionally, a lot of folks postponed routine doctor’s appointments where early signs of alcohol-related health problems might’ve been caught.

  • People struggling with addiction often don’t seek help until they’re “pretty far into the addiction cycle,” Orlousky tells me. “We would anticipate we’re not catching the full volume.”

Identifying reasons and motives for increased drinking is important, Novant psychologist Dr. Shashalee Stewart says.

“If it’s something where people are feeling very stressed out and when they’re feeling stressed then they turn to drinking, then the thought is, ‘okay we need to figure out some healthier coping strategies,'” she says.

Yes, but: Not all of her patients are drinking more, in fact some started drinking less during the pandemic. For folks who are strictly social drinkers, opportunities to be social have decreased, and therefore so has their alcohol consumption.

The future of alcohol consumption is hard to predict as restrictions lift and Charlotteans are once again spending less time at home. People who previously had healthy relationships with alcohol may go back to their pre-pandemic drinking habits, but that might not be the case for everyone.

  • For those who’ve significantly increased their consumption and are ready to decrease their drinking, Orlousky suggests seeking out medical help, as there can be serious complications with alcohol withdrawal.

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