Alcohol, tobacco sales rose during early months of pandemic, study finds

EMS incident data also showed a slight increase in incidents involving alcohol in May


By Laura French

LOS ANGELES — A recent study by California researchers found that alcohol and tobacco sales rose nationwide during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that alcohol sales increased by 34% and tobacco sales by 13% from April to June 2020 compared to the same months in 2019, according to the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (Keck Medicine of USC). 

A study by Keck Medicine of USC researchers found an increase in alcohol and tobacco sales during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A study by Keck Medicine of USC researchers found an increase in alcohol and tobacco sales during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo/Alexas_Fotos, Pixabay)

"These are significant jumps, and show that the stress, boredom and loneliness caused by the pandemic may have led to increased alcohol and tobacco use," said lead author and Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine Brian P. Lee, MD, MAS, a hepatologist and liver transplant specialist with Keck Medicine and the USC Institute for Addiction Science, in a statement. 

Lee and his colleagues chose to study alcohol and tobacco purchasing patterns after noticing an increase in admissions for alcohol-associated liver disease, such as cirrhosis and alcohol hepatitis, at Keck Hospital of USC in 2020. These admissions were reportedly up by about 30% compared to the previous year, and some patients admitted they used alcohol to handle pandemic-related stressors, according to Keck Medicine. Researchers were also interested in whether more than one substance was being abused during the pandemic, and included tobacco sales in their study. 

Tobacco and alcohol use are the second and ninth-largest contributors to global deaths, respectively, causing about 8 million deaths each year worldwide, according to Keck Medicine. 

Lee's team analyzed data from the Nielsen National Consumer Panel, which tracks the spending habits of approximately 70,000 households in the United States, to complete the study. The researchers found increases in tobacco sales across all demographics and increases in alcohol sales across nearly all demographics as well.

Hard liquor sales increased more than sales of wine and beer, and increases for both tobacco and alcohol were highest among younger adults, ethnic minorities, those with younger children and/or large families and those with higher incomes, researchers said. 

"We hypothesized that these subgroups, such as those with younger children, were buying more alcohol and tobacco because they felt more stressed than other segments of the population," Lee stated. "For those with a higher income, sales might have increased simply because they have greater disposable income." 

Lee said he believes the study may reveal a previously unrecognized COVID-19-related public health issue. 

"This study draws attention to the fact that many people across the country might be self-medicating as a way to cope," Lee said in a statement. "By spotlighting this issue, individuals can identify this behavior as potentially harmful and substitute drinking or smoking with healthier activities. Mental health professionals and medical institutions, in addition to policymakers, can also develop interventions to help them." 

A separate report by the ImageTrend Collaborate, based on more than 17 million EMS incidents between Jan 1, 2018 and Dec. 31, 2020, showed a slight increase of 5% in prehospital incidents involving alcohol use in May 2020, followed by a continued decline in the last half of 2020. The report notes, however, that social distancing requirements have led to both fewer opportunities for excessive alcohol use to occur outside of the home and the absence of bystanders to witness excessive alcohol use or abuse and activate an EMS response. 

The ImageTrend Collaborative report also showed a drastic 37% increase in suspected drug use incidents during the early months of the pandemic compared to the previous year, which then slowly declined but still remained higher than previous years. 

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