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Alcohol-related deaths spiked during the 1st year of the pandemic

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

We're learning more about the harms that increased alcohol consumption caused during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a division of the National Institutes of Health, published their findings in a research letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association. From 2019 to 2020, researchers found a 25% increase in the number of alcohol-associated deaths - that is, those where death certificates showed alcohol as the underlying or contributing cause of death.

Aaron White is the research letter's lead author and the senior scientific adviser to the director at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Dr. Aaron White, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

AARON WHITE: Thank you for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: Like I said - let me repeat that statistic. Your research shows an overall 25% increase in deaths related to alcohol in the first year of the pandemic. And that includes an increase in every age category, starting with those as young as 16 years old. That's a shocking jump. Were you surprised by the sharp increase in your findings?

WHITE: We were surprised at how big the jump was. We anticipated there would probably be an increase because we knew that more people were drinking during the pandemic. And, of course, whenever you have more people drinking and drinking more heavily, you have more harm. But the sheer size of the increase was very surprising, particularly given that the pandemic didn't really get underway until the middle of the spring that year. So this increase really occurred within about a nine-month period.

KURTZLEBEN: Were there particular points in this research that jumped out to you, particular statistics?

WHITE: Well, I mean, really, the - what you mentioned earlier, the fact that it happened across all age groups. It happened across all racial and ethnic groups. It was just a general shift upward in deaths related to drinking. But it was surprising to us how quickly it happened, too. I mean, in March, when we started having stay-at-home orders, that's about when the jump occurred. And it was - it went up quickly and stayed elevated throughout the rest of that year and into 2021.

KURTZLEBEN: Tell me more about what we know and don't know about what drove this increase in deaths. You mentioned that people were drinking more. Is it that people were drinking alone? Is it that people with addiction problems needed more help? How much do we know about that?

WHITE: People had a - sort of a double whammy with this pandemic. We had a lot of extra stress to cope with, you know, financial strain and homeschooling our kids. And then we had a reduction in our normal coping strategies. We had less access to socializing with our friends. People who go to church, they had to often miss that. People couldn't even just go, you know, walk around a Target and shop to get out of the house. And so it was the combination of added stress and then a reduction in access to normal outlets for coping that we think drove, for some people, an increase in drinking.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm wondering now - we're two years out from 2020. Do you have hope looking ahead, for example, that we'll see a reduction in alcohol-related deaths as COVID dies down?

WHITE: Well, I do have hope. You know, it's anybody's guess how long it will take for things to start to calm down. It's hard to know if this increase in alcohol-related mortality is going to be something we have to deal with for a long time or if it will recede once everything gets back to, you know, a sort of normal, a new normal. So we have to try to create a healthier environment for people but also promote choices that are healthy and sustainable to help them, you know, cope with life stress.

KURTZLEBEN: That was Dr. Aaron White. He's the senior scientific adviser to the director at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Dr. White, thank you.

WHITE: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.