When the pandemic hit and lockdowns became commonplace in many states, Americans decided one way to deal with the strangeness of the situation was to drink—in some cases heavily. In fact, it’s been reported that alcohol sales during the pandemic jumped considerably (AP, 2020; “Rebalancing,” 2020). In late April, for example, it was reported that online sales of alcohol were up nearly 500 percent (“Rebalancing,” 2020). This didn’t just happen on its own. Businesses and politicians helped make it happen. Unfortunately, the consequences of their actions are going to be with us for a long time.
The entire situation couldn’t be more ironic. As the pandemic progressed, mask-wearing, testing, treatment methods, and casualty figures were frequently viewed through the lens of people’s political affiliations. Interestingly, there was one thing that everyone, regardless of their politics, apparently agreed on: Americans need their alcohol. Politicians who would normally never see eye-to-eye on any issue suddenly became blood brothers when it came to the sacred altar of alcohol sales.
Alcohol addiction during the pandemic had many enablers. Right from the beginning it became a priority for several governors of both parties to make sure their states’ restaurants and bars could sell alcohol off premises and offer delivery (Pendrill, 2021). Customers, worried and unsure about a situation they weren’t used to, were more than anxious to take advantage of the free-flowing booze.
As anyone in the treatment industry could’ve easily anticipated, alcohol consumption during the pandemic spiked. With coverage of the coronavirus occurring 24/7, some people sought refuge from bad news by drinking. Closed bars and restaurants didn’t present a problem because alcohol remained readily available, even while other things, including some basic necessities, didn’t.
Phone apps made it easy to order alcohol online and arrange for home delivery. Soon after lockdowns began, virtual quarantine cocktail parties became a thing. Late-night comedians joked about it, but alcohol addiction during the pandemic proved to be no laughing matter.
According to healthline.com, there have been many warnings from health experts about the increase of alcohol addiction during the pandemic (Curley, 2020). However, in an environment where bad news dominates the headlines, this story never gained the attention it deserved.
Let’s look at some hard numbers. Alcohol sales have risen by more than 25 percent (Sweeney, 2020), but unfortunately alcohol addiction during the pandemic wasn’t the only problem. From mid-March through May of 2020, a national tracking system detected the following (“Our latest,” 2020):
The situation is remarkable and so utterly predictable. If you hand out marshmallows around a campfire, you shouldn’t be surprised when people start roasting them. It’s the same with alcohol—by ensuring its ready availability during a crisis, there were bound to be consequences. Dreamscape Marketing works with many addiction treatment centers, and I can tell you that they’re certainly seeing those consequences right now.
As is often the case, the increase in alcohol sales follows a familiar pattern. Many people view alcohol as less risky than taking illicit drugs, and as a result the addiction sneaks up on them. In the midst of a quarantine and life-altering situations, it’s easier than usual to be unaware of the problems happening. Increased alcohol addiction has been the epidemic overshadowed by a pandemic.
People sometimes enjoy a drink in the evening as a comforting social habit. But for some, that habit eventually leads to abuse. According to the NIAAA, more than 88,000 people in the US die from alcohol-related illnesses (2021). Just for a sense of perspective, that’s more than the total of all drug overdose deaths. Additionally, keep in mind those are prepandemic numbers. What the final tally from the pandemic will be is yet to be determined.
Even when the pandemic passes (and it won’t be doing that anytime soon), the problems that were created won’t go away. Similar to past traumatic events like devastating hurricanes or 9/11, people develop addictions to alcohol related to the stress they experience. Unfortunately, once in place, the addictions remain long after the stress from those events subsides.
Necessary quarantine measures also contributed to the problem. In the beginning of the pandemic, lockdown measures forced many addiction treatment centers to temporarily suspend some therapy programs—inpatient treatment, for example. Many people were startled to suddenly find themselves unable to get the appropriate help they needed.
Adding to the danger was the fact that alcohol addiction increased people’s vulnerability to the virus. Those suffering from alcohol abuse have an increased risk of respiratory infections, which increases the risk of more severe COVID-19 symptoms (CDC, 2021). It should be no surprise that the World Health Organization was quick to issue a warning that governments really shouldn’t make alcohol so readily available, given the obvious health risks involved (WHO, 2020).
Unfortunately, alcohol sales during the pandemic won’t be going down in the foreseeable future. Many companies anticipate that as many as half their workforce may remain remote workers, even after the danger of the coronavirus has passed. With little supervision in a remote working environment, the opportunities to abuse alcohol are abundant.
Greater alcohol addiction during the pandemic was more or less inevitable. Lockdowns and quarantines let the genie out of the bottle, and it won’t be so easy getting it back in.
Dan Gemp is the president and CEO of Dreamscape Marketing, a full-service digital marketing agency serving the health care industry based in Columbia, Maryland. A graduate of Villanova University’s School of Business, Gemp applies financial modeling to Dreamscape’s business intelligence campaigns to advise clients on a cost-per-action marketing model. He is a nationally recognized speaker on ethical health care marketing and maintains a year-round speaking schedule. Gemp’s unique perspective at the intersection of business, digital marketing, and health care has made him a thought leader and go-to contributor to many health care podcasts, webinars, and publications including Bloomberg and The New York Times.