In the summer of 2020, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus gave comments to an emergency meeting of the WHO. In those remarks, he said: “The pandemic is a once-in-a-century health crisis, the effects of which will be felt for decades to come." Now, one year on from those comments, we are starting to see those effects manifest themselves.
From supply chain issues to a growing labor shortage, the pandemic has touched sectors of the economy that few could have predicted just two short years ago. One of the unintended consequences of the response to COVID-19 has been sharp rises in the sales of alcoholic beverages nationwide. The numbers that were seen in 2020 alarmed doctors and experts alike. In 2021, the health effects of the increase in booze sales are starting to be seen and felt.
In a six month period between March and September of 2020, sales of alcoholic beverages rose by 20% totaling $41.9 billion. Further analysis found that the sales increase skewed towards hard liquor rather than beer or wine. The increase in liquor store sales was the largest on record since the statistics began being tracked in 1992.
In March 2021, Forbes warned of potentially "major consequences" for physical health connected to the increase in drinking from 2020. That prediction has now come to fruition. A new study published in JAMA cites a strong correlation between pandemic drinking and an increase in the number of alcoholic hepatitis cases nationwide.
Binge drinking and elevated levels of sustained drinking can cause alcoholic hepatitis. Alcoholic hepatitis causes the liver to stop processing alcohol leading to a build up of toxic chemicals. These chemicals have the potential to damage the liver causing irreversible cirrosis. If left untreated, alcoholic hepatitis can lead to liver failure which can lead to the need for a transplant or death.
Doctors are not entirely sure on how much alcohol it takes to induce alcoholic hepatitis. In some patients, it takes years of heavy drinking to manifest. In other patients, even young patients, incidents of alcoholic hepatitis have appeared after short periods of binge drinking despite no prior history of heavy alcohol intake.
The spike in alcoholic hepatitis cases has been connected to the same spike in the sales of hard liquor during the pandemic. These factors have led to a 59.5% increase in waiting list signups for liver transplants. That is the mean number above the expected total of waiting list signups from a typical year.
In response to the alarming data, the study reads:
This study provides evidence for an alarming increase in AH associated with increasing alcohol misuse during COVID-19 and highlights the need for public health interventions around excessive alcohol consumption.
The mental health effects and physical health effects of the pandemic continue to be felt. It seems as though America's brush with binge drinking during the depths of the pandemic in 2020 will not come without massive health implications for thousands of people.
You can read about binge drinking and excess alcohol consumption, including methods to quit and health effects, at the CDC website.