How Americans’ drinking is changing during the pandemic

More wine anyone?
More wine anyone?
Image: REUTERS/Jorge Silva
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New dietary guidelines (pdf) issued by the US Department of Agriculture last week suggest that men should limit their alcohol consumption to one drink per day, down from a previous limit of two. (For women, the recommendation has held steady at one drink per day.)

Though the new guidelines are part of a regular five-year update, the timing is conspicuous: In the US and beyond, drinking has changed during the pandemic.

Drinking was on the rise before the pandemic

More Americans were consuming alcohol in 2013 than they were in 2002, across every demographic group. That’s based on a 2017 study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

The findings of this study conflict with the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which found that Americans had been drinking about the same amount between 2002 and 2017.

Those who were drinking heavily are consuming more. A recent report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that, in 2018, 66% of American adults had consumed alcohol in the past year, and about 5% of them had engaged in heavy drinking (more than 14 drinks per week for men and more than seven per week for women).

That didn’t really change during the pandemic

The majority of Americans, especially millennials, were drinking the same amount or more during the pandemic, based on an April survey conducted by market research firm Morning Consult. Some 16% of the survey’s 2,200 respondents estimated they were drinking more than usual. This number could be higher in reality, however, because people tend to under-report their drinking.

At-home alcohol sales have skyrocketed

Though alcohol purchases in restaurants tanked during shutdowns, Americans were still finding ways to drink. Online sales especially rose nationwide once the lockdown orders began, according to a report from Nielsen. Some of that effect, its authors note, could be from stockpiling, which was all the rage during this period.

If Americans are drinking more during a time as uniquely stressful as the pandemic, it wouldn’t be surprising. Studies show that feelings of stress or anxiety can increase someone’s risk for alcohol use disorder.

But these trends offer a useful opportunity to check in on the nation’s drinking habits. The lowering of the USDA’s recommendation for men—which establishes the maximum number of drinks a person can have per day before drinking is considered ‘heavy’—is based on a growing body of scientific literature connecting alcohol consumption to health conditions such as cancer and liver disease, researchers told the Wall Street Journal.

Excessive drinking is also related to higher rates of death from car accidents and increased rates of domestic violence. That is, drinking too much can be harmful to more than just the drinker.

Correction: An earlier version of this article asserted that alcohol sales have increased during the pandemic. The text and headline have been updated to specify that at-home consumption has increased, and to offer additional data about drinking before the pandemic.