What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How Americans’ drinking habits have changed during the pandemic

Stay-at-home orders posed a special challenge to Americans who struggle with addiction and rely on the support of in-person recovery meetings. Many others found their alcohol consumption patterns changed significantly during the pandemic. William Brangham reports on the impact COVID-19 has had on Americans’ substance use -- including consequences that could long outlast the virus.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stay-at-home orders posed a challenge to all of us, but especially to Americans who struggle with addiction and rely on the supportive in-person recovery meetings. And many others found their alcohol habits changed drastically during the pandemic.

    William Brangham looks at the impact COVID-19 has had on Americans' substance use, and the consequences that could long outlast the virus.

  • Woman:

    This week has been challenging. I found myself having an unexpectedly strong urge to drink yesterday.

  • William Brangham:

    This is what a recovery meeting looks like in the age of social distancing.

  • Man:

    It's been kind of difficult, in having urges and cravings to drink.

  • William Brangham:

    Groups like this one, for people struggling with substance abuse and addiction, have been forced to move online.

    These members of what's called SMART Recovery. It's an Alcoholics Anonymous this alternative. And these people all agreed to be recorded.

    I have been dealing with quarantine in a rather negative way, with my anxiety and panicking, and I am fighting off a lot of urges.

  • William Brangham:

    Separately, one member of A.A., Reagan Reed, decided to depart from that group's anonymity policy to speak personally about the challenges posed by coronavirus.

  • Reagan Reed:

    We had to find a way to literally bring all of Alcoholics Anonymous online. And we did so via Zoom.

    It's been a big challenge for everyone to sort of adapt to this new way of maintaining sobriety. But then, also, you know, the whole other side of it has been the enormous amount of uptick of people reaching out to us, people who have a drinking problem who are home and isolating, particularly those essential workers.

  • William Brangham:

    In-person meetings are the foundation of recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. They provide a connection that's now sorely missed.

  • Reagan Reed:

    There's something so important about physically making yourself go to an A.A. meeting and sit down in that chair that's so essential to staying sober.

  • Man:

    The online meetings are good, but not getting to a meeting where I can talk to people has definitely been hard on me.

  • Woman:

    One of the other things I — we don't get in the online meetings that we get in face-to-face meetings is getting together a few minutes early, before the official meeting starts, and getting a chance to just chat with the people who are there, and kind of hanging around a bit after.

  • Timothy Brennan:

    It worries me from a relapse standpoint. We're all suffering from a great psychological trauma.

    It's absolutely anxiety-provoking. So, for patients who might be tenuous in their sobriety, feelings of isolation, feelings of loneliness, feelings of anxiety can really represent relapse triggers.

  • William Brangham:

    According to one study, alcohol sales spiked 55 percent nationwide over one week in March, just before stay-at-home orders went into effect in many states. Online alcohol sales jumped 243 percent.

  • Ben Koizim:

    I'm the head of online sales and marketing at Sherry Wine and Spirits in Washington, D.C. March has suddenly gotten the same amount of business as you would normally get in December.

    And, in this industry, it's typical for a decent store to get at least 25 percent of their year's take in the holiday season. So, to be getting a holiday season on your Web site in the middle of March is a humongous benefit to the store.

  • William Brangham:

    Of course, most of this spike in alcohol sales likely comes from so many bars and restaurants being closed across the country, not because of people with abuse or addiction problems.

    Having so many Americans locked up inside their homes is changing people's drinking patterns.

    Justine D'Souza is one of many who say their drinking habits expanded from weekends to weeknights during the lockdown.

  • Justine D’Souza:

    I was used to having a lot of activities after work. So I would have rehearsals. I was very involved in the performing arts scene locally.

    I had never really had time before, with all my activities to sit down in home and have a glass of wine. And so I guess my thought was sort of like, OK, now I have nothing but time after work.

  • William Brangham:

    Austin McMullen said he started drinking more after he became one of the millions who lost their job because of the pandemic.

  • Austin McMullen:

    There's nothing really else to do.

    So, yes, not only have I just kind of been drinking more, but it's been more — definitely not socially. It's just drink, play "Madden," watch TV.

    But then I'll start to feel bad about it. But then I'll go outside and I'll see everybody else is doing the same thing. And I will take my recyclables down there, and it's just full of bottles of just different kinds of alcohol.

    So, every once in a while, I will kind of get like, man, I should probably slow down. I feel kind of upset about this. But then I realize that everybody else is doing the same thing.

  • Timothy Brennan:

    It's very normal for people to reach for a drink when they're feeling some anxiety.

    But because of the physiology of alcohol tolerance, the patient needs to drink more and more in order to achieve the same desired effect. I really worry that some of the roots of addiction are going to take hold.

    And I'm also worried that patients won't necessarily realize it at the time, until it's too late. I'm very much worried about a gathering storm of patients who I don't even know about yet.

  • William Brangham:

    Residential recovery centers are bracing for that storm of new patients.

    The chief medical officer of the Hazelden Betty Ford Treatment Centers said new enrollment numbers have held steady so far, but that they expect to encounter a flood of people seeking inpatient treatment after stay-at-home orders end.

  • Reagan Reed:

    They say that you really have to hit a sort of rock bottom before you can get help.

    But that bottom right now for people who are struggling is getting lower and lower. You know, I worry about people drinking themselves to death just as much as I worry about people with the virus. If you're in a meeting, and you're a newcomer, and you see people from literally all over the globe struggling with something that you struggle with, but are scared to admit to yourself about, you know, that's — that helps.

  • William Brangham:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

Listen to this Segment