Published on August 3rd, 2020 | by Burlington Partnership


COVID-19 and Increasing Substance Use

Alcohol is still the most commonly used drug among youth in the U.S (and Vermont!) and contributes to 88,000 US deaths each year. Across the nation, there have been initial reports of increasing alcohol and cannabis use by adults during the COVID-19 outbreak. There are many factors that could be contributing to this: social isolation, unemployment, flexibility of work schedules, etc. but we want to focus for a minute on the policy changes related to access and promotion and the potential for long-lasting impact on the health of our community.

Communities across the country are finding themselves confronted with emergency rules and regulations put in place with the intention of decreasing the economic impact of the pandemic on bars and restaurants. On April 15th, Governor Scott’s Covid-19 executive order went into effect allowing VT bars and restaurants to start offering curbside pickup, takeout, and delivery. VT is one of only 6 states in the US that has allowed home delivery of alcohol. The impact of a policy change like this – that increases the access to alcohol and can make oversight more challenging – could have lasting consequences for Burlington’s already high youth and young adult drinking rates. 

Alcohol sales are reportedly up by about 22% across the US. RTI International, an independent, nonprofit research institute, recently shared the results of their new survey of a representative sample of Americans. They asked people to share details of their drinking behavior pre-pandemic (in Feb.) and current use (in April) a few of the concerning results shared: 

  • Overall alcohol consumption is up
  • Excessive alcohol consumption has increased
  • Women, people of color, and people with children showed the highest rates of increase
  • Among people who increased their consumption, the average was an additional 5 drinks each week. 

It is important to note here, that both alcohol and cannabis use can increase the risk of catching COVID-19. Use is associated with a number of communicable and non-communicable diseases that can make a person more vulnerable to catching COVID-19. Use can also reduce a person’s ability to remain committed to wearing a mask and practicing physical distancing with others when in public. 

David Jernigan, professor at Boston University School of Public Health, said in this article about the rapid changes to alcohol policy, that after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, alcohol consumption and dependence by those affected increased. “The biggest problem is everything’s happening with no eye on the public health impact of alcohol use.” Jernigan noted that while grocery stores are limiting how much toilet paper a customer can buy to prevent hoarding, there is no limit on alcohol purchases. “This is a perfect storm of putting people at risk. Two, three years from now, you’ll see an uptick. People are putting in place now patterns of drinking that will put them in trouble over time.”

The World Health Organization has reported that drinking alcohol and smoking can increase the risk of catching COVID-19 and governments around the world should limit access during coronavirus lockdowns. Now is the time for our community to think critically about the policies that best support health and wellness and reduce substance use for youth and adults alike. 

During this challenging time, it is even more important than usual to look after your physical and mental health. This will not only help you in the long term, it will also help you fight COVID-19 if you get it. Here is a brief list of advice for supporting your wellness during this time from the World Health Association: 

  • Eat healthy to boost your immune system.
  • Limit alcohol and sugary drinks.
  • Don’t smoke. It can exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms and increase your risk of getting seriously sick.
  • Exercise for at least 30 minutes a day for adults and an hour a day for kids.
  • If you’re allowed to go outside, go for a walk, run, or bike ride while keeping a safe distance from others.
  • If you can’t leave the house, dance, do some yoga, or walk up and down the stairs.
  • People working from home shouldn’t sit too long in the same position. Take a 3-minute break every 30 minutes.
  • Get your mind off the crisis. Take breaks from the news. Listen to music, read a book, or play a game.
  • If you are stressed, confused, scared, anxious, or concerned about your own substance use – reach out for support and help.

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