In the beginning, we stocked up. As stay-at-home orders came down and liquor stores were deemed “essential services,” we bought so much alcohol that off-site sales volumes shot as high as 55 percent above normal. To stanch the bleeding of restaurants and bars — and keep us safely distanced from one another — local and state governments relaxed long-standing alcohol regulations. Curbside pick-up, drive-in windows, home delivery, and other easy ways to buy alcohol proliferated, while sales at grocery and liquor stores also remained high, with overall sales volumes settling at 20 to 30 percent above last year’s figures.
Meanwhile, social media thrummed with new ways to consume our hoards: recipes for quarantininis, invitations to Zoom happy hours, and memes designating earlier and earlier hours “wine o’clock.” In the dark cloud of the pandemic, the silver lining seemed to be a vogue for heavy drinking as a common, natural, and even therapeutic response to an unprecedented crisis. Singer Pink told her Instagram followers, “I don’t know how much you guys have been drinking during this whole quarantine thing, but I’ve decided to make it a sport” before showing off a bad haircut she gave herself while drunk the previous night. YouTubers “the Degenerate Cruisers” launched a day-drinking series consisting of three-, four-, and five-hour live streams of them quaffing one cocktail after another while thousands of subscribers watched, drank along, and participated in live chat. And there were endless other examples.
As they do more and more, the mainstream media followed social media’s lead. Pink’s drunken haircut was covered on a surprising number of news platforms as a charming human-interest story. The New York Times reported enthusiastically on Instagrammers adopting the Finnish custom of getting hammered at home alone in your underwear, known as “kalsarikännit,” roughly “pantsdrunk,” though the Times headline gentrified “drunk” to “tipsy.” When they covered the initial surge in alcohol sales, most media either marveled at the overall figures or investigated what specific products people favored (liquor, cheap beer, hard seltzer, canned cocktails) and speculated about long-term negative effects on product lines such as craft beer.
Though an occasional news article warned about the danger of reckless pandemic drinking, this concern was on the back burner for at least one obvious reason: the elevated sales figures and the people getting drunk on social media didn’t necessarily indicate that we were drinking more overall because nobody had yet tallied up the alcohol not being consumed in shuttered restaurants, bars, clubs, stadiums, theaters, resorts, cruise ships, casinos, bowling alleys, and other venues.
Indeed, two early polls suggested that, while some people were drinking more, more people were drinking less, unless those people were millennials. So it seemed that, for the moment anyway, the increase in home drinking might be offset by the closing of places where people drank together. And on social media some people did talk about the pandemic as an opportunity to forgo alcohol without having to explain themselves to the friends and coworkers with whom they normally drank, to try on sobriety and see how it fit.
After those two polls, both conducted at the very beginning” of the shut-down era, American researchers stopped asking about our drinking. Their Canadian, European, and Australian counterparts, however, continued to ask, conducting large, rigorous studies that began to arrive at some worrisome conclusions.
First, the balance between “drinking more” and “drinking less” shifted as the pandemic wore on. In Britain, an organization called Alcohol Change ran two studies, one around the time of the two US polls and one three months later. In the first, the ratio of “more” to “less” was 20 percent to 33 percent, but, by the second, the ratio was 28 percent “more” to only nine percent”less.” In Canada, where “more” outstripped “less” from the beginning, the ratio still continued to shift in the direction of increased drinking, landing at 26 percent “more” and 11 percent “less.”
Second, increases were much higher among younger drinkers. In the two later studies just cited, for example, reports of increased drinking were highest among those 18 to 34 (34 percent in Canada, 33 percent in Britain) and 35 to 54 (29 percent in Canada, 32 percent in Britain). In Australia, increased drinking was highest among those 35 to 44 (30 percent) and generally elevated throughout the 18 to 54 range.
Third, increases were especially visible among women, people of color, people coping with pandemic-related stresses, people experiencing psychological difficulties, and people who were already drinking heavily when the pandemic began. The Australian study just cited, for example, found levels of drinking highest among women caring for children and men experiencing job loss (or reduced hours), and these findings are all the more dramatic because, unlike the US, Australia has handled the pandemic relatively well and so saw off-site alcohol sales settle back down to 2019 levels within a few weeks of lockdown.
In the US, we knew none of these things. For us, the jury was still out on whether the continued surge in alcohol sales and the incessant drinking memes indicated anything to worry about. Occasionally, a reporter would cover the possibility that heavy pandemic drinking might be a cause for concern in isolated cases and explain how to know if you’re one of those cases, but, even in this purely hypothetical mode, the reporter often apologized for mentioning the possibility.
“Hate to be a literal buzzkill….” began one such article.
Typical was the New York Times article, “Could All Those ‘Quarantinis’ Lead to Drinking Problems?” Though a better question might be why a Times reporter was asking questions to which her international colleagues already had answers, the article instead leaned into the mystery, balancing warnings that risky alcohol use often follows a crisis with reassurances that most readers could enjoy pandemic-amped drinking without such risk. In the end, there was more reassurance than warning: there’s no danger in quarantinis themselves (or the media endlessly promoting them), and most of us can drink more during the pandemic and still be fine as long as we observe certain “benchmarks.”
This message became particularly clear in a final example of healthy pandemic drinking: a Facebook page called “Quarantined Beer Chugs.” QBC, founded by an unemployed bartender, is a page where people post videos of themselves chugging, shotgunning, or funneling beer, all methods devised to get alcohol into the body as quickly as possible for a maximum buzz. In many videos, people chug more than one beer; in fact, as I write, the latest video on QBC features an old woman pounding two at once, her speech slurred, her movements spilling beer all over her sweatshirt. What makes QBC an example of healthy pandemic drinking? Says the Times article, it’s because the site encourages water-chugging as well as beer-chugging, but I scrolled miles and miles down the main page and saw not one drop of water, except under the skis, boats, and paddleboards of people chugging beer. Even the rules state “booze . . . preferred.”
So, with the encouragement of the Times and no data to trouble us, we kept drinking heavily, though some began to worry about doing so.
At the end of June, the US information drought seemed to end when a Bloomberg article announced, “Americans Are Actually Drinking Less During the Pandemic.” Contrary to the impression left by all those earlier news articles, said Bloomberg, overall sales figures show that the increase in at-home drinking “hasn’t been enough to fill the gaping hole” created by the shut-down of hospitality and entertainment businesses. So fretting about a rise in risky drinking was pointless after all, and the American media had shown great wisdom in not doing it.
The article, along with more than 50 like it (I stopped counting) and dozens more TV and radio spots, was based on an alcohol industry forecast predicting that inactive bars, restaurants, clubs, resorts, sporting venues, et cetera would reduce overall US sales volumes by 1.8 percent by the end of 2020. The forecast came from market analysts IWSR, who, like FIAT and 3M, no longer mention what their initials stand for, though it’s probably International Wine and Spirits Record, abandoned because it leaves out beer.
Anyway, the Bloomberg article and the IWSR forecast raised two large questions in my mind. Number one: only 1.8 percent? Really, is that all? With so many bars and restaurants closed? Number two: how could IWSR (or anyone) possibly predict total alcohol sales less than halfway through the most screwed-up year ever, especially when no one knows how many businesses will reopen and fail or not reopen at all? To put the question more simply: why forecast, rather than just report what has already happened?
There’s an obvious answer to the second question, though I‘ll never be able to confirm it. IWSR published a forecast, rather than a situation report, because overall alcohol sales in early 2020 were up, rather than down. After all, venues such as bars bought alcohol from their wholesalers in January, February, and March; then March and early April saw the huge retail spike we’ve been looking at, and May was the only “new normal” month for which IWSR had time to gather data before publishing the forecast in June. Almost certainly, IWSR needed to look ahead in order to portray the major players in the industry as hurt by the pandemic.
Appearing damaged helps those massive corporations by justifying both federal relief and reductions in tariffs and excise taxes, which alcohol industry lobbyists have long desired but have pushed for much harder since the pandemic arrived. Indeed, even the big distillers that, as we’ll see in a minute, are on track to sell more liquor in the US by the end of the year than they did in 2019 (e.g. Diageo, LVMH, and Pernod Ricard) lined up for bailouts, as well as tax cuts and other considerations.
Now back to the first question. Whether a made-up 1.8 percent decline for the year is a lot or a little depends on your perspective. Given the vast profits of the alcohol industry (second only to fossil fuels), 1.8 percent is certainly a massive amount of money in absolute terms. But sales in this industry can be volatile, as we saw when global alcohol sales dipped 1.6 percent in 2018 with no worldwide catastrophe to blame (unless you count young people drinking less as a catastrophe). So a 1.8 percent drop doesn’t look very large to me.
In fact, it’s tiny compared to the rest of the world, for which IWSR predicts “double digit declines.”
In addition, even with people purchasing a lot more booze in supermarkets and liquor stores, as well as online, shouldn’t overall sales go w-a-y down? With so many bars and clubs and restaurants closed, and their sociable, festive drinking not happening, no one buying shots for friends, no one sending drinks to attractive strangers, no huge crowds celebrating a sports team’s victory or mourning a defeat? All that context-driven consumption not happening, and total sales are expected to dip just 1.8 percent?
What’s even more surprising is that liquor, or “spirits,” to use the industry term, are predicted to rise a little in 2020, 0.3 percent to be exact. Without bars, bartenders, other drinkers, and all the pleasures of commercial liquor service, Americans will still manage to imbibe as much as they did before the pandemic and even a teeny bit more. We might conclude from this fact that setting doesn’t drive liquor consumption as much as we thought, in which case businesses have wasted a lot of money on state-of-the-art mixology, interior design, and the like. It’s far more reasonable to conclude that not being able to go out is reducing some people’s consumption, which then means that other people are drinking more liquor — -enough to cover the deficit and then some.
Actually, it’s far more reasonable to conclude nothing from a forecast, but I’d say that ship has sailed. In fact, the message “Americans Are Actually Drinking Less During the Pandemic” was so well-disseminated by the mainstream media that it became the last word on the subject to media outlets such as Fox News. So we celebrated the news that we were Actually Drinking Less by shotgunning a few beers and posting the video on QBC.
In the middle of July, the US finally got some real data about drinking during the pandemic: a study by the non-profit research institute RTI, which stands for Research Triangle Institute. The study was tiny, compared to some of the others I cited, and not published like the Australian and Canadian studies, but it offered journalists facts, rather than speculation, and an opportunity to make statements, rather than ask questions.
Did the American media jump on this valuable new information? A few regional news outlets did, mostly neighbors of RTI led by North Carolina’s News & Observer. But, outside the Carolinas, I found only three US articles: two reprints of the News & Observer piece (in the Seattle Times and the Arkansas Democrat Gazette) and an excellent article on the news site Yahoo Life. (It did appear on British and Canadian platforms, however.) In other words, the information received a tiny fraction of the media attention devoted to “Americans Are Actually Drinking Less During the Pandemic.”
So what does the RTI study tell us? Turns out we have been drinking more after all. Across the board, Americans drank more in April than we did in February, with the average intake rising from 0.74 drinks per day to 0.94 drinks per day. That starting point is low, probably because, like many researchers (though not the Australians mentioned earlier), RTI simply asked subjects about their drinking, which people tend to underestimate by about half. But even if the starting point is low, an average increase of 0.2 drinks per day is significant, more than a 25 percent rise in consumption.
The RTI researchers also found that the percentage who reported excessive drinking rose from 29 percent in February to 35 percent in April. Binge drinking increased as well, with 22 percent bingeing in February, compared to 27 percent in April. About 30 percent reported drinking on seven more days in April than in February, so increases were visible in both the amount drunk and the frequency of drinking.
Perhaps the most useful data indicated who was drinking more: women, parents, unemployed people, people with mental health issues, and African Americans. These data reflect many of the findings of the Canadian, British, and Australian studies I mentioned earlier, especially the dramatic link between increased childcare responsibilities and heavy drinking. In fact, RTI found that people caring for children reported four times the increase in consumption of people without kids at home. The researchers also found a clear connection between job loss and heavy drinking, with unemployed people consuming double what working people drank.
RTI’s findings about African Americans are obviously unique to their study but consistent with research showing the greater burden of alcohol problems in the Black community despite comparatively low overall consumption and high rates of abstinence. They are also consistent with the outsized impact the pandemic is having on African Americans, who suffer higher infection rates, higher death rates, and higher unemployment rates but have fewer health care resources (including insurance), less wealth to fall back on, and lower chances that the CARES Act will help their businesses.
What most surprised researchers was what study co-author Carolina Barbosa called “large increases in consumption among those who were not drinking in excess of recommended guidelines in February.” While she and her colleagues had expected already-heavy drinkers to up their intake, as happened after 9–11 and Hurricane Katrina, they were startled to see light drinkers suddenly consuming “a lot more.” In other words, RTI suggested that the answer to the Times’s question “Could All Those ‘Quarantinis’ Lead to Drinking Problems?” might be “yes.”
What most surprised me was that they didn’t also find people who already had alcohol use disorders drinking more. It surprised me because it diverged from what the Australian researchers found and because I’ve seen so many first-person accounts of increased drinking on forums for alcohol dependents, both jokes and nervous admissions from people newly able to drink all day because they started working from home or because they stopped working at all. According to the Yahoo Life article, Dr. Petros Levounis, chair of the department of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and chief of service at University Hospital also found this conclusion very surprising.
Could the study be too small to produce a fully accurate picture? A sample size of 1,000 subjects (one reporter says 993) doesn’t seem large enough to reflect the huge, diverse US population, especially compared to the Australian study, which polled 3,219 subjects to represent a nation with one-thirteenth as many people. In addition, the fact that non-drinkers were only 10 percent of the sample suggests the study may not be representative, as the US population of non-drinkers is closer to 30 percent, according to the last comprehensive analysis of consumption patterns. Or maybe it’s not the size but the way subjects were selected that produced some distortions in its findings.
I’m also not sure how helpful it is to measure alcohol intake as drinks per capita per day, which disguises the wild unevenness in people’s consumption and reinforces the myth of the moderate-drinking middle. But it is an efficient metric and one people can readily grasp, so I won’t push this point too hard. Finally, given how many other studies found young people drinking significantly more than older folks, I wondered why RTI didn’t mention age, especially given its attention to other variables.
I want to end on a positive note, though, because the study’s authors do link increased drinking to policy decisions, as well as to pressures on individuals. I mentioned earlier that many restrictions on the sale of alcohol have been relaxed, but what will happen to these special provisions once the pandemic has abated? The alcohol industry is already making a case for their continuation, first to help restore the fortunes of businesses hurt by the long shut-down — -a worthy goal — -and later for the convenience of customers. But RTI’s study demonstrates that convenience isn’t always a good thing when it comes to alcohol, and Barbosa states explicitly that “If these measures are not reversed post-pandemic, they have the potential to increase population-level alcohol consumption and corresponding harms for the long term.”
That’s a bold statement — -and may, I fear, be one reason the RTI study did not get better coverage. But the main reason is the same one as always: the US media’s overall aversion to negative news about alcohol. They don’t mind occasionally covering alcoholism as a terrible problem that kills people, wreaks social havoc, and costs a lot of money, but they always treat it as a separate phenomenon, barely related to the substance alcohol or to the way it’s advertised, sold, or regulated. Whether that’s because the quarter-trillion-dollar-a-year US alcohol industry buys advertising from every major newspaper and news site in the country or because the reporters and editors who work for those outlets are in the demographic (educated, high income) that drinks the most, I don’t know. Probably both. But until we begin to treat alcohol problems as connected to alcohol and the way we talk about it and the way we regulate it and the larger social, political, and epidemiological forces that increase or decrease its use, we’re not going to reduce risky drinking, no matter how much hand-wringing we do.
Meanwhile, a problem that was already on the rise before the pandemic began is getting worse, and almost no one is watching.
 First, a YouGov poll found 20 percent of respondents drinking more during the pandemic and 25 percent drinking less. Then a larger Morning Consult poll found only 16 percent drinking more and 19 percent drinking less, except among millennials, where the “more” number rose to 25 percent. Within days, however, a Daily Caller poll reversed this trend with 40 percent reporting increased drinking and 24 percent reporting the opposite.
 In the original (long) version of this article, I spelled out what each study found and supplied links so that readers could consult the originals. If you want that information, send me a message, and I’ll email you a pdf.
 Full disclosure: I couldn’t read the entire IWSR forecast, which covers the whole world and is available only to IWSR subscribers. So I’m citing either material from the public summary or from the Bloomberg article (both already hotlinked in the text).
 Yes, I know that some small breweries, wineries, and distilleries, especially those that rely on visitors for sales, have been badly hurt by the pandemic and deserve the same relief as other small businesses, which is to say a lot more than they’re getting. I’m talking about the big multinationals that dominate the alcohol industry.
 There are exceptions, of course. In fact, the Times, on which I’ve just been so hard, has done some excellent reporting on alcohol issues, including proposed changes in US dietary guidelines and corruption in research sponsored by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. But they regularly ignore major peer-reviewed studies showing negative health effects and, in general, prefer celebrating alcohol to warning of its risks.