- Alcohol is the most used and abused addictive substance in the United States. One in 12 adults abuse or are dependent.
- Alcohol sales rose 80% in 2020, during the height of the pandemic.
- Long-term health risks include liver damage, heart disease, brain damage, malnutrition and mental health disorders.
- We can fight alcoholism by speaking about it honestly with children and monitoring our own emotions and habits.
Every year since 1987, the month of April has been designated as Alcohol Awareness Month, providing education about alcoholism and helping to reduce the stigma surrounding those who fight this deadly addiction.
For many, the use or misuse of alcohol has become more prominent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Home-based work and education provide the opportunity for children, teens, and adults of all ages to have 24x7 access to alcohol in homes where it is kept and used. From virtual cocktail hours with friends or colleagues to solitary drinking for relief from loneliness, depression, anxiety, or grief, to young people trying alcohol for the first time when home alone, our relationship with alcohol has changed…and not in a good way.
The need to understand, support, and treat alcohol abuse and addiction is greater than ever. It’s important to fully comprehend the challenges facing our country as we consider how parents, educators, employers, local organizations, and public health experts can best come together to address them.
Alcohol Abuse by the Numbers
Alcohol is the most used and abused addictive substance in the United States. The statistics paint a jarring picture:
- One in 12 adults, 17.6 million people, abuse or are dependent on alcohol.
- Nearly 100 thousand Americans die annually due to alcohol-related causes.
- Seven million children live with a parent who abuses alcohol.
- Forty percent of adults drink more than the low-risk guidelines.
- 855,000 Americans aged 12-17 have alcohol use disorder (AUD).
- The average U.S. worker spends $3,000 per year on post-workday drinks.
- Online alcohol sales went up 80 percent in 2020.
Here is a brief overview of the stages of alcoholism:
- Stage One: Occasional abuse and binge drinking > experimentation, testing limits
- Stage Two: Increased drinking > drinking every weekend, using alcohol to feel good
- Stage Three: Problem drinking > habit causing health, relationship changes
- Stage Four: Alcohol dependence > tolerance developed, no control over consumption
- Stage Five: Alcohol addiction > physical and psychological need to drink
Besides these effects, the long-term health risks of heavy drinking include liver damage, heart disease, brain damage, malnutrition, and mental health disorders.
Abuse Can Start, or Be Prevented, in the Very Young
By the time all 50 states and the District of Columbia had adopted a uniform drinking age of 21 in 1988, the U.S. was experiencing a steep decline in underage drinking. But children and teenagers did not stop experimenting with alcohol — or becoming addicted. In the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 8.65 million Americans aged 12-20 reported that they had consumed at least one alcoholic drink within the past 30 days!
Risk factors such as genetics, biological markers, and psychological disorders lead children to use or abuse alcohol. Psychosocial factors, from family dynamics to childhood trauma to alcohol advertising, also contribute to the start of underage drinking. More males than females engage in underage binge drinking, a difference that is shrinking. Binge drinking typically begins at age 13, peaks between ages 18 and 22, then gradually decreases. Imagine the physical, mental and emotional damage that alcohol is inflicting on these growing bodies and minds.
How do we keep our children from becoming alcohol drinkers before they are 21? Parents and guardians in particular, and society in general, must tell them the truth about alcohol at a very early age. Like the other “talks” that occur around the temptations and pressures children and teens will face, there should be regular education around the topic of underage drinking and its risks.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a wealth of resources to families and communities, such as a parent guide, a college drinking video series, and a prevention manual. It also points to the research and information on StopAlcoholAbuse.gov for organizations and governments looking to reduce and prevent underage drinking.
Adults who drink alcohol must be mindful of their words and actions, too. As Jessica Lahey, author of The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence, told CNN, “When they [elementary school kids] see us using alcohol and drugs to deal with sadness or cope with emotions, they get the message that that is what alcohol and drugs are for.”
“Hangover From Alcohol Boom Could Last Long After Pandemic Ends”
The above NPR headline reminds us how alcohol dependency is part of the mental health fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. The story also notes that while alcohol availability has increased in the past year, counseling and treatment options have been limited. Yet long before 2020, drinking alcohol has been a significant component of social interactions, from casual gatherings to major celebrations. We have consistently ignored a growing number of people who choose not to drink alcohol, as well as those who are in recovery or fighting urges to relapse.
Meeting colleagues for a drink after work is nothing new, but now many are doing it virtually. Some start that happy hour long before the end of the workday or carry it to extremes well into the night. You may (or may not) be surprised by how many workers have no problem getting drunk in front of their bosses — and vice versa. As more businesses move towards in-person workforces in the coming months, managers should consider redirecting worker interaction away from alcohol. Whether virtual or live, why not a dessert party, a scavenger hunt, or a game of trivia instead of happy hour? Make it easier for everyone to feel included.
Adults who drink alcohol to relieve stress also should look at the CDC’s recommendations for alternative coping options such as:
- Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to the news
- Practice breathing, stretching, and/or meditation
- Exercise regularly
- Connect with friends or colleagues online or safely in person
- Participate in volunteer, community, or faith-based organizations
Preventing alcoholism is a goal we must all embrace. But for those who fight toward recovery, support and treatment of all kinds are available. Working together, the care and hope we offer will enable them to live whole.