No, COVID is not causing Americans to drink. Here is why not.
I have already said it and I repeat: the pandemic is not causing most people to over-drink alcohol. A recent study has led to another round of misleading and inaccurate headlines written for Shock Value that proclaim that alcohol consumption has increased this year, especially among women.
The study, conducted by the apolitical RAND Corporation, published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and funded by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, heard from 1,540 American adults (18+) about how much and how often they have drank 30 days in May and / or June 2020, a few months after COVID started locking down parts of the country in March. There is some data indicating an increase in intake compared to the same period last year. But RAND and much of the media have played down or overlooked statistics that conclude otherwise.
In fact, it is not accurate to announce, as the Boston Herald did, that “Study Says Coronavirus Pandemic Is Driving Women to Drink.” And it is incorrect, in my opinion, to conclude, as RAND did, that “health systems may need to educate consumers through print media or online about increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic (italics mine). “
Here are the facts: Women reported drinking a little more often during the 30 days preceding the response to the survey questions. But they also reported drinking smaller amounts of alcohol during these sessions, resulting in negative net total consumption. Although men and all adults aged 30 to 59 reported drinking slightly more overall, the amount drunk per day decreased.
So, while it is correct to say that women drank 17% more often, as the data shows, it is incorrect to say that women drank 17% more, as most of the media did. It is also correct to say that 20% of women participated in higher rates of binge drinking during the period measured, but incorrect to suggest that women overall did.
RAND study author Michael Pollard responds, “While there were both increases and decreases in individuals, the results that we report as significant represent an overall increase on average. No significant decrease was identified at the average level. “
It’s also important to note that for the data sets that showed increased consumption, the benchmarks were so low that any increase seemed remarkable. Many media have chosen not to include this basic data.
For example, Axios did not provide any context for its brief coverage of the investigation. Under the headline, “Americans drink more alcohol than in 2019,” wrote public health reporter Marisa Fernandez, “Frequency of alcohol consumption among women increased by 17%. Binge drinking among women – four or more drinks in a few hours – has increased by 41% since 2019. ”
Yes, these percentages are true. But while I absolutely do not promote overconsumption, it is important for us in the media to tell readers what the statistical changes represent. So this is it:
· Women reported drinking 4.6 days per month in May and / or June 2019. Women reported drinking 5.4 days during this period in 2020. This represents an increase of 0.8 days, or 17% more frequently. What if I told you that these same women drank 15.1 drinks in 30 days in 2019 and 14.3 drinks in 2020? This is a net decrease of 0.81, or 5% less consumption.
Let’s look at one of the other Axios and RAND stats highlighted.
· Heavy drinking has increased by 41% among women, has it not? This figure comes from a 0.18 increase in the number of days of heavy drinking – from 0.4 to 0.6. Now, to put it even more in perspective, in 2019, these “heavy drinkers” were drinking 3.3 drinks per day. In 2020? 2.7. That’s a 19% decrease in the amount consumed.
“Most people still aren’t heavy drinkers. On the other hand, this means that the increases that were recorded, driven by a relative minority of the population, were much larger than the reported national averages, ”Pollard sent. “Indeed, 1 in 15 women in our data who were not heavy drinkers in 2019 became heavy drinkers in 2020, with an average number of excessive days among these new heavy drinkers of 2.6 days per month. The increases in those who were already heavy drinkers were even larger. Decreases in binge eating and people stopping binge drinking altogether, although they still occur, were offset by the increases. ”
Overall, the population increased the number of drinking days from 14% to 6.2 and increased their total number of monthly drinks by 0.3% to 18.5. That’s a 12% drop in the amount drunk per session.
What about adults aged 30 to 59? Nineteen percent more frequently (5 days to 5.9 days); 17% more drinks (16.4 to 9.2 drinks); 1.2% fewer drinks per day (3.3 glasses for 3.3 glasses).
Yes, alcohol consumption for the general population and adults in this age group has increased slightly. And, again, my intention is not to minimize this. But: we are only talking about point fractions in most cases; we measure 30 days in May and June, not the pandemic as a whole; according to an international expert on alcohol consumption, by exaggerating the extent of alcohol consumption, we may in fact promote this behavior further.
David Hanson, professor emeritus of sociology at the State University of New York in Potsdam, says the RAND report “picks” the data to highlight, focusing its findings on the alarming information and ignoring the rest. He calls it counterproductive.
“By exaggerating the magnitude of the increases and systematically ignoring the decreases, the report inadvertently promotes the behavior it seeks to reduce. When people mistakenly believe that a higher proportion of people are doing something, they tend to increase that behavior themselves, ”he says, citing the drunk driving and drinking of undergraduates as examples. year.
Lester Jones, chief economist of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, opposes the report because “people cannot draw conclusions from random anecdotes. We need to look at the data as a whole. “
Aggregated data does not refute RAND’s claims. But they don’t necessarily support them either.
According to information provided by Jones, US beer sales fell 2.7% from 2019 to 2020. Data shows year-over-year beer sales increased 2.1% in January, decreasing very slightly in February (from one year to the next), then falling cataclysmically. 8.9% in April and 16.1% in May. They leveled off in June, then started to recover in July and August, the latest month for which data is available.
Jones is keen to say that these numbers do not include the massive amounts of returns and refunds required by the rapid closures of bars, restaurants, concert halls, festivals, etc.
Moreover, he adds, overall consumption of ethyl alcohol in the United States remained stable from 2000 to 2019, failing to change markedly despite major social disruptions like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The data for 2020 do not yet exist.
“There is a very slow and predictable change in total demand over time, subject to demographics and market dynamics,” Jones writes.
Neither Axios nor the Boston Herald responded to a press time request for comment.