Alcohol-Related Deaths Soared by More Than 25% During the Pandemic, Study Finds

Between 2019 and 2020, the number of deaths involving alcohol went up 25.5%, a major increase from the average annual growth of 2.2%

women and alcohol
Drinking wine. Photo: Getty

Alcohol-related deaths jumped up by more than 25% in the U.S. during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, a major increase compared to past years, according to a new study.

Between 2019 and 2020, the number of deaths involving alcohol soared by 25.5%, far more than the average annual increase of 2.2% that occurred between 1999 and 2017. In 2019, 78,927 people died in alcohol-related deaths — by 2020, that number had increased to 99,017.

"We're not surprised. It's unfortunate, but we sort of expected to see something like this," Dr. Aaron White, lead author of the study and a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told CNN.

For the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Friday, researchers went through death certificates from the Centers for Disease Control for people 16 and older and found ones where alcohol was an underlying or contributing cause. This could include alcohol overdoses, liver disease and car crashes where the person was under the influence of alcohol.

White said that the pandemic understandably took a toll on Americans.

"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," he said. "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."

White also told The New York Times that "the assumption is that there were lots of people who were in recovery and had reduced access to support that spring and relapsed."

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From the data, the researchers found that alcohol-related deaths went up for all age groups, both men and women and for every ethnic and racial group. The biggest jump was in people 35- to 44-years-old, with an increase of nearly 40%. And while deaths in men and women went up at about the same rate, alcohol-related deaths in women are increasing faster year to year.

"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 told CNN.

The CDC does not yet have data available for 2021, but researchers looked at the provisional data and found that Jan. 2021 was the month with the highest number of alcohol-related deaths between Jan. 2019 and June 2021, indicating that 2021 data might end up being even more alarming.

The number of 2020 deaths is also likely an undercount, White said, as death certificates typically "way underestimate" traffic fatalities that are caused by alcohol.

Meanwhile, cigarette smoking actually went down significantly in 2020, hitting an all-time low with just 1 in 8 Americans saying they were cigarette smokers, according to surveys collected by the CDC. The number of Americans saying they were e-cigarette users also declined.

But with alcohol sales up over the course of the pandemic — and coupled with this new research — White said that medical providers need to do more to determine if their patients are suffering from a reliance on alcohol, and to slow this trend.

"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."

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