Drug overdose deaths also reached record levels during the first year of the pandemic, with more than 100,000 Americans dying of overdoses during the 12-month period that ended in April 2021, a nearly 30 percent increase over the previous year, according to reports issued in November. The number of deaths from opioids in which alcohol played a role also increased.
Young adults ages 25 to 44 experienced the greatest increases in alcohol-related deaths in 2020, rising nearly 40 percent over the previous year, according to the new report.
Available data for 2021 indicates that alcohol-related deaths remained elevated, Dr. White said, but he added that it was hard to say whether that indicated a continuation of the trend because alcohol consumption and deaths generally drop in February after the holidays and then trend back up.
“Maybe they’ll go back down,” he said, “but this could be the new norm.”
The crisis has actually been brewing for years, as drinking among adults has been increasing even as drinking among adolescents has fallen off, said Katherine Keyes, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, who was not involved in the study. Mental health struggles were also becoming more prevalent before the pandemic, making people more susceptible to substance abuse.
“As with many pandemic-related outcomes, this is an exacerbation of issues that were beginning before the pandemic for many people,” Dr. Keyes said. “Drinking has been going up for 10 or 15 years among adults, and the trend accelerated in 2020, as some of the motivations to drink changed: Stress-related drinking increased, and drinking due to boredom increased.”
Adults in their mid-20s to mid-40s with children at home were under increased stress as they juggled remote working and learning, she said; those without children, who generally drink more anyway, may have been contending with more isolation and loneliness.
And when people drink at home, she noted, there’s no bartender monitoring the size of the drink — “you have less ability to regulate how much is going into the glass,” she said — and drinking is much less expensive.