Humans, like nature itself, abhor a vacuum—and there’s been no vacuum lately quite like the tedious months of COVID-19 quarantine. In nature, air rushes in to fill the empty space. In the time of pandemic, it’s been alcohol. That, at least, is the finding of a new survey of American adults conducted by the RAND Corporation and published Tuesday in JAMA Network Open. But the study bears close reading.
From the very start of the pandemic, it was clear that alcohol was going to be the medication of choice for a lot of Americans, especially during the early days when panicky shoppers were hoarding toilet paper, hand sanitizer, bottled water, and groceries. During the week ending March 21, national alcohol sales increased 54% from the same week a year before and online sales leapt a staggering 262%.
The question was, with more alcohol on hand—and plenty more available as soon as stores began to reopen but stay-at-home guidelines remained in place—would people actually consume more? The answer, according to the RAND researchers, who surveyed a sample group of 1,540 adults, was: And how.
Overall, adults reported drinking 14% more than they did the year before. For adults in the 30 to 59 age group, the increase was even greater, at 19%. Women overall reported drinking 17% more, bringing them in above the all-adult total and below the 30-59 group.
When it came to heavy drinking—which the researchers defined as four or more drinks within two hours for women and five or more for men—the figures for women were especially striking, or at least they seemed to be. The researchers found that while heavy drinking increased by just 7% among men, it rose a troubling 41% among women. So, that’s a serious cause for worry, right? Maybe not.
Overall, men reported drinking heavily just .95 days per month in 2019; that increased by just .07 days per month this year. Women drank heavily on just 0.44 days per month in 2019; that increased by 0.18 day this year. So overall, men are still drinking heavily more than women are, and in both cases, the numbers factor out to just one bender per month.
Clearly, no amount of heavy drinking is healthy, and the overall increase of 14% among adults is an undeniable cause for concern. But for the moment at least, it appears that even in time of pandemic, both men and women are holding the worst of their imbibing to a comparative minimum.