Harmful Alcohol Use Rising During Pandemic, UArizona Health Sciences Researchers Say

TUCSON, Ariz. — The ongoing pandemic has had a significant and alarming trend of increased alcohol use and abuse – especially among younger adults, males and those who have lost their jobs – according to a new study by University of Arizona Health Sciences researchers.

Alcohol use and abuse rose during pandemic lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, according to new research from the College of Medicine – Tucson’s Department of Psychiatry. Research led by William "Scott" Killgore, PhD, professor of psychiatry in the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson and director of the Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab, found that hazardous alcohol use and likely dependence increased every month for those under lockdowns compared to those not under restrictions.

“Being under lockdown during a worldwide pandemic has been hard on everyone, and many people are relying on greater quantities of alcohol to ease their distress,” said Dr. Killgore. “We found that younger people were the most susceptible to increased alcohol use during the pandemic, which could set them on the dangerous path toward long-term alcohol dependence.”

The paper, “Alcohol dependence during COVID-19 lockdowns,” was recently published in the journal Psychiatry Research.

Between April and September 2020, Dr. Killgore and UArizona co-authors Sara Cloonan, Emily Taylor, Daniel Lucas and Natalie Dailey, PhD, surveyed 5,931 adults from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Each month, roughly 1,000 participants completed the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), a 10-item questionnaire that is used to detect hazardous drinking in adults.

The questions assess the frequency and quantity of alcohol consumed, behaviors associated with dependence, and harm resulting from alcohol use, and provide scores that range from 0 to 40. Scores from 8 to 14 suggest hazardous or harmful alcohol consumption, a score of 15 or more indicates the likelihood of alcohol dependence, and a score of 20 or more implies severe alcohol use disorder.

People under lockdown posted increases for all three thresholds, with hazardous alcohol use rising from 21.0% in April to 40.7% in September and probable alcohol dependence rising from 7.9% to 29.1%. For those scoring 20 or higher, usage that is considered severe alcohol dependence, percentages for those under lockdown increased from 3.9% in April to 17.4% by September.

For all three thresholds, the percentages for those not under lockdown restrictions were essentially unchanged.

Dr. Killgore says the surge in alcohol use comes with several risks, not only to the individual, but also to the family.

“Being cooped up with family for weeks and months without a break can be difficult, but when excess alcohol gets mixed in, it can become a recipe for increased aggressive behavior and domestic violence,” Dr. Killgore said. “I worry about the effect on families and children.”

For the individual, there are numerous health problems associated with alcohol dependence, including risks of cancer, liver disease, injury, mental health problems and early death. Additionally, employers may also be affected by an individual’s excessive alcohol use.

“Many of us are working from home, but this is not the same thing as being productive from home. The use of alcohol while ‘on the job’ at home is likely to reduce productivity at a time when the country needs us to be doing everything we can to sustain the economy,” he added. “Having a few drinks while ‘on the clock’ at home can lead to a situation of ‘presenteeism,’ which means that a person may be sitting through Zoom meetings and responding to a few emails, but may not actually be contributing productively to their job. This could severely hamper our ability to pull out of this crisis quickly and on a strong economic footing.”

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Photos available upon request.

About the University of Arizona Department of Psychiatry
The Department of Psychiatry, founded in 1967 as one of the original departments in the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson, excels in enhancing behavioral health through scientific research, education, training, community leadership, and service. Dedicated to compassionate, community-based mental health services, the department is leading efforts to comprehensively approach psychiatric disorders, prepare future clinicians, prevent psychiatric disorders, help guide community efforts for improving behavioral health, and provide state-of-the-art care that meets the needs of our communities and promotes social justice. Through the University's partnership with Banner Health, one of the largest nonprofit health care systems in the country, the department is leading the way in psychiatric medicine. For more information, visit psychiatry.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Instagram | YouTube).

About the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson
The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson is shaping the future of medicine through state-of-the-art medical education programs, groundbreaking research and advancements in patient care in Arizona and beyond. Founded in 1967, the college boasts more than 50 years of innovation, ranking among the top medical schools in the nation for research and primary care. Through the university's partnership with Banner Health, one of the largest nonprofit health care systems in the country, the college is leading the way in academic medicine. For more information, visit medicine.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | LinkedIn).

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences
The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. UArizona Health Sciences includes the Colleges of Medicine (Tucson and Phoenix), Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona, the greater Southwest and around the world to provide next-generation education, research and outreach. A major economic engine, Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 4,000 students and 900 faculty members, and garners $200 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: uahs.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).