Pandemic problem drinking on the rise, but men are actually drinking less

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Men tend to have a reputation for being heavier drinkers than women, but a new study has found some surprising alcohol trends over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a nutshell, researchers from the RAND Corporation report that drinking actually declined among men, while remaining steady among women.

Meanwhile, however, “alcohol-related problems” increased considerably for both genders (69% for men, 49% for women). Study authors from the global policy think tank are uncertain what exactly is causing this influx of drinking problems.

Researchers assessed alcohol consumption across a representative sample of Americans between 30 and 80 during three periods throughout the pandemic. Surprisingly, they discovered that men are drinking 20 percent less on average over the past two years.

“Both men and women report increases in negative consequences from their drinking as the pandemic goes on,” says lead study author Joan Tucker, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND, in a media release. “For men, this finding is particularly striking in that the increase in alcohol-related problems during the pandemic was occurring even as there was a steady decline in the amount they were drinking.”

So why are more and more men putting down the bottle?

The research team theorizes men deal with more negative consequences due to drinking, which means they’re also more motivated to kick the habit over an extended period of time. Another hypothesis is that the pandemic left many men little choice but to cut back on drinking, due to more time spent at home and more responsibilities.

This certainly isn’t the first project to examine Americans’ drinking habits during the pandemic, with most finding a troubling increase in consumption. For instance, prior RAND research finds women are both drinking and binge-drinking more since 2020. This latest work takes things a step further by examining “alcohol use trajectories” and connected problems over a nine-month period. Importantly, all participants submitted a report on their alcohol habits in 2019.

In all, the team surveyed 1,118 people. Most of those participants completed three surveys: between May and July 2020, between October and November 2020, and during March 2021.

Generally speaking, the data indicates men still consumed more alcohol during the pandemic than women. However, while alcohol use slowly but steadily declined among men over the nine-month period, it remained largely stable among women. By March 2021, both genders were drinking roughly the same amount per day.

Pandemic loneliness leading to drinking problems

Understandably, feelings of loneliness appear to promote more drinking. Women who reported feeling very lonely early in the pandemic were more likely to deal with alcohol-related problems and only had a minimal decline in alcohol consumption.

The data also indicates both men and women looking for ways to cope early in the pandemic fell back on alcohol for relief, as well as those who are typically socially motivated to drink. Consequently, these individuals tended to drink more in general during the early days of the pandemic and deal with more alcohol-related problems. Both factors (coping and social motivation) did not predict drinking habits later on, however.

The study is published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

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