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Hangover From Alcohol Boom Could Last Long After Pandemic Ends


So there's a lot of drinking going on during this pandemic. Hard liquor sales are up roughly 30%. That has helped bars, restaurants and liquor stores survive, but experts say it also means serious health risks for millions of Americans that could last long after the coronavirus passes. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When the coronavirus swept the country, a lot of things government did in response were super controversial - mask-wearing rules, for example, and quarantine restrictions - but one policy was truly bipartisan.


ANDREW CUOMO: Order from your favorite restaurant. Order from your favorite bar. Order from your favorite winery.

MANN: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo scrambled to help people get their glass of wine or their evening cocktail, even when sheltering in place. So did Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.


RON DESANTIS: I allowed them to deliver alcohol. I think that's been pretty popular. We're probably going to keep that going. Maybe...

MANN: It worked. While many bars and clubs face new restrictions, a lot of us still found ways to have a drink or two with friends. Quarantine cocktail parties like this one with YouTube influencer Marissa Nicole became a new thing online.


MARISSA NICOLE: Why do you all have such small drinks? I'm going to go get more.

MANN: Total alcohol sales outside of bars and restaurants have surged roughly 24% during the pandemic. That's according to market data collected by Nielsen. It's been an economic lifeline for businesses. And for a lot of us, a beer in the evening or a gin and tonic on the weekend feels like a taste of normal life. But there's a dark side to America's drinking boom. And even if it feels like a total buzzkill, health care experts say this is one more thing in our muddled world that could really hurt people. Elizabeth Marshall lives in upstate New York, where she's struggled with alcohol addiction for decades.

ELIZABETH MARSHALL: I had relapsed during the pandemic. I picked up that first drink, and I was scared. It takes one time, and that's it.

MANN: The federal government says roughly 15 million Americans are addicted to alcohol. As the coronavirus spread, therapy programs were canceled. That left people like Marshall isolated and scared.

MARSHALL: It drove my depression - like, skyrocketed it. Like, I isolated. I didn't want to go anywhere. I didn't want to do anything.

MANN: And she says, alcohol was everywhere.

MARSHALL: It didn't make any sense to me how they could shut down all of the places that are trying to help and keep going with the alcohol sales.

MANN: You may be thinking this isn't a concern for you or your friends. Maybe you're just having one more glass of wine a night than normal. But Dr. Lorenzo Leggio, a researcher with the National Institutes of Health, says it's not just people already struggling with alcohol addiction who are at risk.

LORENZO LEGGIO: I get worried when people think about alcohol as a tool to unwind, as a tool to cope with stress and anxiety.

MANN: Leggio says alcohol feels different from other high-risk drugs, like a normal and even comforting part of our social lives. But he worries that long after the pandemic passes, people will struggle with patterns of drinking and addiction that start now while they're isolating at home.

LEGGIO: We know from previous traumatic events - Katrina, 9/11 - people who survived, some of them, developed alcohol use disorder related to the increase in stress.

MANN: Leggio says warning signs include a strong urge or need to drink. Or if you drink more than you planned, then it may be time to talk to your doctor. The surge of drinking during the pandemic comes at a time when Americans were already drinking more, the steady increase that's worried researchers for decades. Leggio says these trends together could leave more Americans vulnerable to the coronavirus.

LEGGIO: People with excessive alcohol use have an increased risk of respiratory infections, and they also have an increased risk of the complications related to the respiratory infections.

MANN: Again, scientists generally agree having an occasional drink is no big deal. But as the pandemic drags on into autumn, this may be a great year for a lot of us to put sober October on our calendars.

Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.