Alcohol abuse spiked during coronavirus pandemic, killing 100,000

boozeabuse-150x150Alcohol abuse blew up from a rising concern to a significant killer during the coronavirus pandemic, with 100,000 Americans losing their lives to booze-related causes, a 25% increase year-over-year in the first 12 months of the global infection’s outbreak.

The figures from research newly published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows the lethal damage caused by the pandemic, not only directly by the 1 million-plus deaths blamed on the virus but also in its closely linked menaces.

  • Experts already had found that the pandemic worsened the opioid abuse and drug overdose crisis to record levels, with 100,000 dying of this cause in the last year.
  • The nation also saw a terrible spike in road casualties, reversing progress made over the past few decades. Although fewer people were on the road at the beginning of the pandemic, about 38,680 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, an increase of about 2,500 from 2019, and deaths surged further in the first half of 2021, federal officials say.

Spiking alcohol-related deaths were not exactly surprising, though their scale was, the Washington Post reported, quoting, among others Aaron White, lead author of the pandemic booze-deaths study and senior scientific adviser to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:

“Before the pandemic, White said, researchers with the NIAAA had been seeing an increase of about 3% per year in alcohol-related fatalities. In 2020 — when the coronavirus spread around the globe — that increase jumped to nearly 26%, he said. ‘The most significant finding is just the sheer size of the increase and how abruptly it happened,’ he said.”

The New York Times reported this:

“[T]he number of Americans who died of alcohol-related causes increased precipitously during the first year of the pandemic, as routines were disrupted, support networks frayed, and treatment was delayed. The startling report comes amid a growing realization that Covid’s toll extends beyond the number of lives claimed directly by the disease to the excess deaths caused by illnesses left untreated and a surge in drug overdoses, as well as to social costs like educational setbacks and the loss of parents and caregivers. Numerous reports have suggested that Americans drank more to cope with the stress of the pandemic. Binge drinking increased, as did emergency room visits for alcohol withdrawal.

“But the new report found that the number of alcohol-related deaths, including from liver disease and accidents, soared, rising to 99,017 in 2020, up from 78,927 the previous year — an increase of 25% in the number of deaths in one year. That compares with an average annual increase of 3.6% in alcohol-related deaths between 1999 and 2019. Deaths started inching up in recent years but increased only 5% between 2018 and 2019.”

The newspaper reported this grim information about the pandemic’s alcohol-related toll:

“Among adults younger than 65, alcohol-related deaths actually outnumbered deaths from Covid-19 in 2020; some 74,408 Americans ages 16 to 64 died of alcohol-related causes, while 74,075 individuals under 65 died of Covid. And the rate of increase for alcohol-related deaths in 2020 — 25% — outpaced the rate of increase of deaths from all causes, which was 16.6%. The alcohol-related deaths went up for everybody — men, women, as well as every ethnic and racial group. Deaths among men and women increased at about the same rate, but the absolute number of deaths among men was much higher …

“Young adults ages 25 to 44 experienced the greatest increases in alcohol-related deaths in 2020, rising nearly 40% over the previous year, according to the new report. Available data for 2021 indicates that alcohol-related deaths remained elevated… [experts noted] 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.”

While the pandemic-related deaths may shock many people, health experts underscored that this once-in-a-century public health nightmare has exposed an array of shortcomings in the nation’s health care system. Even as experts cautioned about increases in overuse and abuse of alcohol, recreational drugs, prescription painkillers, and illegal narcotics, the warnings were not taken with enough gravity or urgency, the Washington Post reported:

“Michael Barnett, assistant professor of health policy and management at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the coronavirus pandemic did not create many new social problems. It magnified the ones some people were struggling with — social isolation, financial uncertainty, the burden of mental illness with not enough available treatment, he said. ‘It’s all kind of a perfect storm for addiction to get worse, if not prevent it from getting better,’ he said. Barnett, who was not involved in the study on alcohol-related deaths, said the United States went into the pandemic with an addiction treatment infrastructure that was inadequate for drugs, alcohol, and multi-substance-use disorders. In addition, he said, addiction remains stigmatized, and ‘that gets in the way of people accessing treatment …’

“[I]t’s becoming very clear that what we need to do in public health is put more energy into helping build resilient people who have healthy, sustainable coping strategies,’ he said. ‘And that’s how we protect ourselves from increases in alcohol and other drug use during a crisis like this is to be better equipped to cope with the stress and the strain.’”

Indeed. In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damages that can be inflicted on them by dangerous drugs, notably opioid painkillers, as well as more common intoxicants, notably alcohol and marijuana.

The opioid crisis — fostered for years by Big Pharma, doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurers, and others in the U.S. health care system — has entered its latest and notably bad stage with easily and cheaply made, exceedingly powerful synthetic painkillers like fentanyl flooding the country. Public health and law enforcement officials have warned that criminals are tainting an array of illicit street products, now including marijuana, with fentanyl, promising a higher high to buyers. They may not realize, though, that dosage of so potent a drug can be tough to control. It can be lethal, especially to the unsuspecting.

No one, of course, imagines that bluenose approaches to alcohol, marijuana, or prescription drugs make sense in helping to reduce substance abuse. But experts have warned for a while now that people put themselves and others around them by taking far too lightly their use, overuse, and abuse of alcohol, pot, and prescription medicines. The line can be fine and crossed fast between fun, social drinking, or pleasant grass smoking and, frankly, turning into a drunk or stoner.

And as for mixing intoxicants and then driving — please: No, no, no.

We’ve got a lot of work to do to ensure that, if we do, we drink sensibly. We need to put major efforts into putting down the opioid crisis. We’ve got to make our roads safer. And we have huge needs to address, so the crushing demand gets answered for mental health, addiction treatment, and other health challenges that too many people deal with by abusing alcohol, prescription and illicit drugs.

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