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Chuck Ingoglia

President and CEO, National Council for Mental Wellbeing

Americans & Alcohol: A Sobering Situation

September 17, 2021 | Addiction Treatment | From the CEO | Comments
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America has a drinking problem.

We already know the pandemic has increased anxiety and harmed mental health. The stress caused by the pandemic also led to dramatic increase in drinking.

American adults said they drank 14% more often during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report last year in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Nielsen reported a 54% increase in national sales of alcohol for the week ending March 21, 2020, compared to a year earlier. Online sales increased 262% from 2019, when people were quarantined and avoided bars.

That’s a lot of happy hours and “quarantinis.”

I’m not here to rain on your parade, but it might be time to consider whether pandemic drinking has harmed our wellbeing.  [Spoiler alert: It has.]

Here’s why – we don’t drink in moderation in America. Alcohol is a drug, and it’s widely available. But we often drink at our own peril.

More than 14 million adults ages 18 and older have alcohol use disorder (AUD), according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

The pandemic hasn’t been easy on anyone. We have pandemic fatigue. We thought – we hoped – we were getting a handle on COVID-19. Then along came the Delta variant. It’s not difficult to understand why drinking increases when hope fades.

A nationwide survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association in February found that one in four adults reported drinking more this past year to manage their stress.

We call them happy hours for a reason, right? Let’s be happy.

We’ve normalized drinking, and that encourages frequent consumption and over consumption. It also encourages us to ignore the dangers.

Do you use opioids? You have a substance use challenge. Do you drink too much? You like to have a good time.

But the grim data illustrates that opioids and alcohol have an equally deadly impact. Drug overdose deaths rose nearly 30 percent in 2020 to 93,000, according to preliminary statistics released in July by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

An estimated 95,000 people (approximately 68,000 men and 27,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, according to the NIAAA. Alcohol is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. The first is tobacco, and the second is poor diet and physical inactivity.

While we focus on overdose deaths, alcohol-related deaths remain largely ignored. We can’t do both?

Perhaps President Biden’s appointment and the subsequent confirmation of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh can help Congress and the administration focus on both priorities. Walsh is in recovery for alcohol use disorder.

“Getting into recovery when I was 28 changed my whole life, my whole perspective. It grounded me in a different way. The way of living sober is: a day at a time,” Walsh told The Washington Post recently. “A day at a time you work through it, you find your place. And because of the fundamentals of the recovery program, it’s helped me get through different challenges, whether a bad story in the paper or a bad series of stories. Like, it’s okay, you’ll get through it. A day at a time.”

Some encouraging signs have emerged.

Last month, a new survey from Gallup found that fewer Americans say they are consuming alcohol, with 60 percent of U.S. adults saying they drink alcoholic beverages, down from 65 percent in 2019.

In 2020, college students reported “significantly lower” alcohol use across compared to 2019, according to a story in USA Today. The share of students reporting alcohol use in the past 30 days dropped from 62% in 2019 to 56% in 2020, while 28% of respondents reported being drunk in the past 30 days, down from 35% in the year prior.

Binge drinking among college students also fell, with 24% percent of respondents saying they consumed five or more alcoholic drinks consecutively in the past two weeks, down from 32% in 2019.

It would be beneficial if that trend continues, but there’s no reason to believe it’s more than a modest short-term dip.

Our larger problem remains – our relationship with alcohol hasn’t changed. Drinking remains widely accepted, alcohol is easy to obtain and too many of us often drink to excess.

But now it’s time to sober up and figure out how to curb our appetite for alcohol so our wellbeing doesn’t suffer irreparable harm.

As we observe Recovery Month throughout September, it’s important to remember there are many resources that can provide help for those with alcohol use disorder.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a free website called Rethinking Drinking that can help you find doctors, therapists, support groups and other ways to get treatment for a drinking problem.

Responsibility.org provides information and awareness intended to eliminate drunk driving.

Other programs and initiatives include:

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