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Studies Illustrate Rise in Alcohol, Illicit Substance Use During Pandemic

September 29, 2020

Two studies released this month have brought into focus the degree to which Americans are turning to illicit substances and alcohol in response to the stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A cross-sectional study of urine drug test results from 150,000 patients between November 2019 and July 2020 found increased positivity rates for fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. The study, published on JAMA Network Open, was co-authored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Millennium Health. Patients in the study had been diagnosed with or at risk of having substance use disorders. Comparing the results of patients during the pandemic vs. results of those screened prior to the declaration of COVID-19 being a national emergency, researchers found patients were:

  • 67% more likely to test positive for fentanyl
  • 33% more likely to test positive for heroin
  • 23% more likely to test positive for methamphetamine
  • 19% more likely to test positive for cocaine

Meanwhile, overall alcohol consumption among adults over the age of 30 is up 14% over the same time last year, with women increasing heavy drinking—defined as having four or more drinks within a couple hours—by 41%, per a RAND Corp. study released on Tuesday. Among adults ages 30-59, the increase was 19%.

The RAND study, also published by JAMA Network Open, was based on a survey of 1,540 adults who are members of the organization’s American Life Panel. Participants were asked about their alcohol consumption in the spring of 2020 vs. the spring of 2019.

“We’ve had anecdotal information about people buying and consuming more alcohol, but this is some of the first survey-based information that shows how much alcohol consumption has increased during the pandemic,” Michael Pollard, study lead author and a sociologist at RAND, said in a news release announcing the findings.

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