According to research published on Friday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the number of alcohol-related deaths in the US rose to 25.5% between 2019 and 2020, the first year of the pandemic.
In previous years, the average annual percent increase in alcohol-related deaths was 2.2% between 1999 and 2017.
In 2019, there were 78,927 deaths involving alcohol in the US and 99,017 in 2020. This data includes motor vehicle crashes that occurred due to driving under the influence of alcohol.
Of all deaths in 2019 and 2020, alcohol-related deaths comprise 2.8% and 3%, respectively.
“We’re not surprised. It’s unfortunate, but we sort of expected to see something like this,” Aaron White, lead author of the study and a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said.
“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. 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 found a 16.6% increase in death caused by any reason between 2019 and 2020. However, the sudden spike in alcohol-related deaths surpassed what White called an “unprecedented leap.”
The study was conducted by analyzing death certificates of people who were 16 and over between 2019 and 2020, provided by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. All deaths in which alcohol was listed as an underlying cause were identified.
CDC’s provisional data for the first half of 2021 was also used, where researchers found that January 2021 records the highest number of alcohol-related deaths between January 2019 and June 2021.
This spike in alcohol-related deaths in 202 was seen across all age groups, but the largest changes was among 35- to 44-year-olds with a nearly 40% increase.
The rate of women’s alcohol-related deaths is also accelerating, even though men still dominate this category.
“These measures have been escalating faster for women. That’s one of the things that’s been very clear over the last 20 years,” White said.
According to the CDC, opioid overdose deaths that involve alcohol also increased about 41% during the first year of the pandemic, just as drug overdose deaths hit record highs.
White adds that overdoses from alcohol and overdoses of other drugs in which alcohol was involved is named second to liver disease as the top underlying factors for alcohol-related deaths. Liver disease makes up a third of deaths involving alcohol.
White also said that the increasing rate of deaths involving alcohol is a reflection of increasing alcohol consumption.
“Nationwide, there was about a 3% increase in alcohol sales, which is the biggest increase … in 50 years,” he said.
But White said alcohol is not always reflected in a death certificate, even if it is involved with the death. For example, death certificates “way underestimate” the role of alcohol in traffic fatalities.
“Deaths involving alcohol reflect hidden tolls of the pandemic,” the researchers wrote in the study.
With this new data, White said it’s important for care providers to look into what’s causing this spike, increase screening, and openly ask patients about their alcohol use.
“We need to help people learn how to cope in healthy ways,” he said. “It’s not enough to prevent unhealthy behavior. We need to go that next step and promote healthy behavior.”
Although the numbers are grim, White is somewhat optimistic: “I also see hope in this. We’re beginning to understand what needs to be done to turn this around.”
Opinions expressed by NY Weekly contributors are their own.