RICHMOND — Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Authority had one of its regular 20%-off “cyber sales” last week — its first during the COVID-19 pandemic — and the website for state-run alcohol monopoly crashed before the day was done.
Ah, pandemic times.
The sale — ABC’s first “Summer Cyber sale” — took place Aug. 5 from midnight to 11:59 p.m. By 5 p.m., the liquor authority had to shut it down.
“Many of you eagerly anticipated today’s Summer Cyber Sale and took time out of your busy schedules to place an order via our website. Unfortunately, many of you were also met with error messages, page crashes, store selection changes and emptied carts,” Virginia ABC wrote in a message to customers.
ABC apologized, and don’t worry, another sale date will be announced soon, but the “extremely high spikes in web traffic” — combined with the fact that Virginians spent $23.6 million dollars on alcohol last week, an increase of $3.6 million from this time last year — is possibly also a reflection that Virginians are drinking more during the pandemic.
Everyone is, according to experts.
Pick a state, category of booze (wine, beer or spirits) or a sub-section of people (men, women, parents, non-parents) and sales are up — at least when it comes to at-home or to-go sales.
During the week of March 21 alone, U.S alcohol sales rose 55 percent, according to the market research firm Nielsen. A survey of 993 people from across America, conducted in May by the Research Triangle Institute, found that the number of drinks people were consuming per day had increased by 27 percent between February and April. The frequency of binge drinking during the same period also increased by 26 percent.
It is well-documented that alcohol use increases in times of stress, said Ananda Amstadter, an associate professor of psychiatry, psychology, and human and molecular genetics at the VCU School of Medicine. Amstadter studies the relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol use.
“There’s a large body of literature that supports that exposure to traumatic events, especially prolonged stressors like COVID-19, is related to substance use … The most common being alcohol, because it’s so socially normative,” Amstadter said, noting that recent research coming from China shows that even those who are isolating, and are, therefore, not physically at risk of contracting the disease, are at risk of developing PTSD.
Heavy drinking always has the potential to lead to the development of alcohol use disorder, Amstadter said, but it also poses some unique risks during the pandemic. If someone who is completely isolated develops alcohol poisoning or becomes injured while inebriated, they are less likely to receive care than if they were with others.
Additionally, chronic heavy alcohol use can lead to lung damage or acute respiratory distress syndrome. “That would be bad [enough] if we weren’t in a global pandemic that is respiratory,” Amstadter said, “but if somebody has an alcohol use disorder or a chronic use of high amounts of alcohol, they would likely have worse outcomes if they did end up getting infected with COVID-19.” She notes that she is not aware of any existing medical research on how COVID-19 effects patients with alcohol use problems.
Dr. James Thompson has observed the increased use of — and dependence on — alcohol throughout the pandemic firsthand. As the founder and chief medical officer of The Virginia Center for Addiction Medicine, Thompson said within a few weeks of the pandemic beginning, he noticed an increase in the number of patients coming to the center seeking help with alcohol dependence. By May, the center was seeing about 50% more visitors than in a usual month.
He thinks the ease with which people can have alcohol delivered to their homes, combined with the boredom and ennui of quarantining, has contributed to the increased purchasing and consumption of alcohol over the past several months.
“We’ve always seen that when there’s increased access, there’s increased use and increased problems,” he said.
There could also be the factor that many people just like a sale — and 20% off isn’t a bad discount.
Virginia ABC was on track to have “a big day pre-issues,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We’re looking forward to offering another promotion soon and we’ll be sharing that info when it’s scheduled.”
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