Binge Drinking and the Pandemic

The Lempert Report
December 10, 2020

With each week of a COVID-19 lockdown the risk for binge drinking escalates among those who already imbibe.

The average age of study participants was 42, 89% were white and 69% were female. The topline is that with each week of a COVID-19 lockdown the risk for binge drinking escalates among those who already imbibe. Based on the survey, conducted during the first four weeks of COVID-19 lockdowns in the United States in March and April, the stress during these periods significantly increased the risk for binge drinking -- especially among those with a history of depression or heavy drinking. None of this will be a surprise to many of us; frankly, it's a logical finding.

The odds of increased alcohol intake for binge drinkers -- men who, within two hours, consume five or more drinks, and women who consume four or more -- is 60%, compared to 28% for people who do not drink excessively. "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, and it was particularly concerning for those with a previous diagnosis of depression and current depressive symptoms," study co-author Sitara Weerakoon told UPI. 

Here’s the problem. What happens after the lockdowns are over and hopefully the pandemic is as well. "There is evidence that engaging in binge drinking can lead to long-term alcohol use disorders and alcohol dependence, which in turn lead to more health problems in the long run," said Weerakoon, a doctoral candidate at University of Texas School of Public Health.  The first stay-at-home order was issued in New York on March 19. That meant the closure of schools and many "non-essential" businesses, including restaurants and bars, as well as sports and entertainment venues, leading to increased time spent at home, and often away from family and friends. On average, every respondent had been in lockdown for four weeks, and spent 21 hours a day at home, with roughly three-quarters not leaving the home for work, according to the researchers. Just over one-third of participants reported binge drinking during the pandemic and increasing their intake. The binge drinkers reported consuming four drinks per occasion, while other non-binge drinkers had an average of two drinks. Participants who drank at harmful levels during the pandemic consumed a maximum of seven drinks per occasion, while others had a maximum of two per session, the data showed.

Participants with a previous diagnosis of depression and mild and moderate or severe depressive symptoms had an up to 80% higher risk for binge drinking during the pandemic compared to those with no history of the disease.

Living with children in lockdown, however, reduced the odds of binge drinking by 26%, according to the researchers.

"Previous research has shown that life stressors -- loss of employment and social isolation, two major things we have seen as a result of the pandemic -- are a major factor in consuming alcohol at unhealthy levels," Weerakoon said.

"Our results also found that increased time spent at home in isolation is impacting the likelihood of binge drinking, [which] may indicate that people had more time to spend drinking alcohol, in addition to suddenly experiencing life stressors," she said.