Food & Agriculture

New Data on Pandemic Drinking Underscore Need for Labeling, Tax Reforms

Highest Increases in Excessive Drinking Reported for Black and Hispanic Drinkers, Mothers of Young Children

Washington, D.C. —Researchers with RTI International presented today the results of a new study on American drinking habits during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they do not paint a pretty picture. Across the board, average alcohol consumption has remained well above pre-pandemic levels, and problematic drinking patterns among much of the population, particularly women and minorities, have intensified. The troubling data call into question recent cuts in the federal alcohol excise tax, and lend support for labeling proposals, such as the addition of a cancer warning on alcoholic beverage labels.

Entitled, “One Year Later: How Have American Drinking Habits Changed During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” the presentation presented longitudinal data connected to a study published in October 2020. The earlier study found “statistically significant increases in alcohol consumption” among a nationally representative survey of nearly one thousand respondents, when comparing drinking levels between February and April of 2020 (i.e. before and after COVID-19 associated lockdowns). The more recent data gathered additional consumption data from the original group of respondents for the months of July and November of 2020. The results indicate that the spike in alcohol consumption during the first months of the pandemic has not only held, but continued to grow, with an average increase of 39% reported from February to November of 2020.

Of particular concern, the number of respondents reporting consumption in excess of recommended drinking guidelines increased significantly over the study period. The researchers estimate that an additional 9 million Americans are binge drinking at least once a month, as compared to before the pandemic, helping to gulp down an estimated one billion more standard drink equivalents per month. The vast majority of this consumption took place in the home, with far fewer respondents indicating that they were venturing out to bars and restaurants to drink, as compared to the pre-pandemic data.

Alcohol struggles have affected some groups more than others. Drinking among women increased more than among men; in fact, the data indicate that more women then men are now drinking in excess of recommended guidelines, a first. The data suggests a disparate impact on certain racial groups as well, with Black drinkers’ consumption increasing by 510% between February and November of 2020. Men with teenagers also reportedly nearly doubled their consumption during that time period. The data further show a significant increase in respondents who were reportedly “drinking to cope” or experiencing mental health problems, and sharp increases in drinking among those who were earlier classified into those categories.

“This data reinforces the case for commonsense policies to inform consumers about the dangers associated with alcohol,” said Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy at Consumer Federation of America. “They also demonstrate the folly of short-sighted tax cuts like the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, only 5% of which benefits actual craft brewers or distillers.”

Even before the pandemic, the research showed that alcohol’s toll on U.S. society was growing. Between 1999 and 2017, the number of death certificates mentioning alcohol more than doubled—from 35,914 in 1999 to 72,558 in 2017—some 2.6% of all deaths reported in the United States that year. And while people aged 45-74 had the highest rates of deaths related to alcohol, the biggest increases over time were among people age 25-34. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, excessive alcohol use costs the U.S. economy $249 billion per year, in the form of increased injuries, violence and poisonings; unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease; poor pregnancy outcomes; and chronic diseases including cardiomyopathy, cirrhosis of the liver, and several forms of cancer.

“Given the enormous cost to society, taxes on alcohol should be going up, not down,” said Gremillion. “And public health authorities should be doing more to alert consumers to the dangers of alcohol, including its outsized contribution to cancer, including breast cancer and colon cancer. In particular, Congress should revisit the 1987 law that set the health warning statement for alcohol and amend it to include a cancer warning.”

Alcohol consumption represents the third largest modifiable risk factor contributing to cancer cases in women (behind smoking and obesity) and the fourth largest in men (behind smoking, obesity, and UV radiation). The World Health Organization first documented the link between alcohol and a variety of cancers in 1987, and researchers estimate that cancers associated with alcohol consumption affect nearly 90,000 Americans each year. Even “light” and “moderate” drinking have been tied to various cancers, with the evidence particularly strong for breast cancer. Last summer, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended that the 2020 guidelines lower the limit of alcoholic drinks per day for men down to one, in part because of cancer risk.

Nevertheless, surveys from both the National Cancer Institute and American Institute for Cancer Research have found that fewer than half of U.S. adults know that alcohol increases cancer risk.

“We should not tolerate this gap between alcohol’s contribution to cancer risk, and consumer obliviousness to that contribution,” said Gremillion. “A cancer warning on alcoholic beverages is the most straightforward way to fulfill the consumers’ right to know this critical information, and it would likely help to curb some of the disturbing trends that we are seeing related to pandemic drinking.”

Contact: Thomas Gremillion, 202-939-1010