U.S. alcohol-related deaths hit highest rate in decades during coronavirus pandemic, study shows

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With millions of cases of a new and relentless virus, hundreds of thousands of deaths and the wait for a vaccine, for many, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States brought unimaginable pain, fear and frustration.

Some people turned to alcohol to cope. Sales of alcoholic beverages spiked, so naturally alcohol consumption did, too. Now a study has found that alcohol-related deaths in the United States climbed nearly 26 percent in 2020 — the largest year-over-year increase in decades, researchers say.

The study, published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that more than 99,000 people died in 2020 of alcohol-related causes ranging from alcohol-associated liver diseases to mental and behavioral disorders to drug overdoses involving alcohol.

Public health experts have seen increases in anxiety, depression and social isolation during the pandemic, said Aaron White, lead author of the study and senior scientific adviser to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “And we know from previous crises that when people are faced with uncertainty, they tend to reach for things to try to cope with that and they’re not always the healthiest things,” he said.

He said the study’s findings reflect “a general increase in difficulty coping during the pandemic.”

Before the pandemic, White said, researchers with the NIAAA had been seeing an increase of about 3 percent per year in alcohol-related fatalities. In 2020 — when the coronavirus spread around the globe — that increase jumped to nearly 26 percent, he said.

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