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CDC Finds Alcohol-Related Deaths Spiked After Start of COVID-19 Pandemic

Deaths that could be directly attributed to alcohol use rose 26 percent in the United States in 2020, according to new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A new CDC report showed that there were more than 52,000 deaths that could be wholly blamed on alcohol use in 2020, compared to 39,000 in 2019. These deaths exclude car crashes, murder, or other incidents that can be influenced by alcohol use, instead focusing on health-related issues such as alcohol-caused liver or pancreas failure, alcohol poisoning, withdrawal, and other diseases, the Associated Press reported.

The rate of these deaths had increased pre-pandemic, but at a much slower rate—7 percent or less per year. The change in 2020—to about 13 deaths per 100,000 Americans—is the highest rate in at least 40 years, the CDC said.

Alcohol-attributed deaths are 2.5 times more common in men than women, and the rate is highest for people ages 55 to 64, but it rose dramatically for other age groups in 2020. Among women ages 35 to 44, the rate climbed by 42 percent. Based on data from 2015 to 2019, the CDC found that about 82,000 of 140,000 deaths are due to excessive drinking over a long period of time and 58,000 are from causes tied to acute intoxication.

Deaths attributable more broadly to excessive alcohol consumption accounted for 12.9 percent of total deaths in the United States for adults aged 20 to 64 years, according to a research report by Marissa Esser, Gregory Leung, and Adam Sherk on JAMA Network Open. These can include deaths linked to drinking, including motor vehicle crashes, suicides, falls, and cancers. Among people in older age groups, alcohol can be a factor in many accidents—according to the AP, “health officials say alcohol is a factor in as many as one-third of serious falls among the elderly.”

The CDC found that both rural and urban U.S. counties saw increases in alcohol-related deaths, but by 2020, the rate in rural counties was 24 percent higher than in urban counties.

Alcohol-related death rates varied by U.S. states as well, the JAMA report found, from 9.3 percent of total deaths in Mississippi to 21.7 percent in New Mexico. Overall, the researchers concluded, one in eight deaths among U.S. adults between 20 and 64 years of age was attributed to excessive alcohol consumption.

“Research suggests that alcohol consumption and related harms increased during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic,” an earlier research letter noted in March 2022. “Studies reported increases in drinking to cope with stress, transplants for alcohol-associated liver disease, and emergency department visits for alcohol withdrawal.”

Deaths with alcohol cited as a contributing or underlying cause increased across all age groups since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers found, and the number of deaths with an underlying cause of alcohol-related mental or behavioral disorders increased 35.1 percent. Opioid use overlapped with alcohol use, and that increased risks to U.S. adults in 2020 and the first six months of 2021. Opioid overdose deaths involving alcohol increased 40.8 percent, and deaths in which alcohol contributed to synthetic opioid overdoses (such as those involving fentanyl) increased 59.2 percent.  

The United States was not the only nation where alcohol use spiked during the pandemic. In England and Wales, alcohol killed more people in 2020 than in any year in the previous two decades—7,423 deaths from alcohol misuse, marking a 20 percent spike from 2019, the BBC reported. Around 80 percent of those deaths were from alcohol-related liver disease, 10 percent from mental and behavioral disorders due to alcohol use, and 6 percent from accidental alcohol poisoning.