University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

Stay-at-home orders tied to an increase in harmful alcohol consumption, study finds

Newswise — Binge drinkers increased their alcohol consumption by nearly 20% during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, according to new research by public health experts at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). Their study, published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, is one of the first to analyze the association of stress caused by the pandemic and dangerous alcohol consumption.

The study team surveyed nearly 2,000 adults in the United States in the spring of 2020. Their questions aimed to understand any stressors participants were experiencing stemming from COVID-19 lockdown orders, including amount of time spent at home, how many individuals were living in the participants’ household, any current or previous instances of depression, and any job impacts related to the pandemic such as decreased pay. They also surveyed participants about their drinking habits, classifying them as either binge drinkers, non-binge drinkers, or nondrinkers.

Based on the self-reported data, the team was able to determine that 32% of all the participants reported binge drinking during stay-at-home orders, and 60% of those classified as binge drinkers said they had increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic compared to 28% of non-binge drinkers. Binge drinking is defined for men as consuming five or more drinks and for women as consuming four or more within a two-hour period.

In addition, binge drinkers with a history and current diagnosis of depression were more likely to report consuming more alcohol during the pandemic, compared to those with no previous or current diagnosis. The study authors also found that the longer participants spent sheltering at home, the greater the odds of harmful consumption of alcohol.

Those who binge-drank shared they consumed a maximum of roughly seven drinks in one sitting during the pandemic. In comparison, non-binge drinkers reported consuming roughly two drinks maximum during stay-at-home orders, with approximately 56% of non-binge drinkers reporting drinking about the same amount they would prior to the pandemic. 

Respondents answered they spent an average of four weeks in lockdown and at least 21 hours a day at home. Those who lived with children were 26% less likely to binge-drink compared to those who did not have children in their household.

The study team shared that their findings point to the concern that the COVID-19 pandemic will have lasting public health consequences, even for those who never contracted the virus.

“Our results indicate that those who spent more time at home during the early stages of the pandemic were more likely to consume alcohol at unhealthy levels. This was particularly concerning for those with a previous diagnosis of depression and current depressive symptoms,” said Sitara Weerakoon, MPH, first and corresponding study author and a doctoral candidate at UTHealth School of Public Health.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prolonged heavy alcohol consumption can lead to liver disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and alcohol use disorders.

“We hope that public health and clinical experts consider these additional associations of the pandemic and develop programs and opportunities to overcome them. This may include increasing awareness and access to virtual counseling sessions and mental health services. Additionally, public health organizations should prioritize providing healthy alternatives for stress relief, such as virtual meetups and social activities,” Weerakoon said.

Other UTHealth School of Public Health study authors included Katelyn Jetelina, MPH, PhD; and Gregory Knell, MS, PhD.

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