Pandemic-fueled drinking causes wave of alcohol-related liver disease and hospitalizations, report says

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- As the pandemic drags on, so too does increased alcohol consumption. And now a year later, the effects of alcohol are starting to manifest in hospitals across the country.

According to an American Medical Association report, there was a 54% increase in alcohol sales across the U.S. in March 2020, when lockdowns began. Since then, booze sales have continued to boom.

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"If I were to just look at the numbers for 2020 holiday season vs. 2019 holiday season, we're looking at a 45% increase," said Scott Jeffery, who is a beer buyer at Maison Corbeaux in San Francisco. Jeffery doesn't necessarily think that equates to people drinking 45% more. He believes their sales are a result of bars, restaurants, and other venues being closed; so instead, people buy alcohol to drink at home. "People who have the luxury of working from home right now, where maybe that means you can get away with drinking a beer or making a cocktail while you're still on the clock."

Jefferey does acknowledge that the pandemic has created a lot of stress. "I think some people resort to unhealthy methods of coping."

"Instead of going out to the bars until 2 a.m, I'll just drink every night at my house," said San Francisco resident Sam Gehret, who was buying beer at Maison Corbeaux on Friday. "The total consumption throughout the week has gone up, but my max consumption on an individual night has gone down."

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Kate Larsen: "You don't feel like you're overdoing it?"

Sam Gehret: "I mean, yeah - it's a good question."

While it's hard to fault people for seeking an outlet during the pandemic, a year later there are some deeply troubling health impacts that are starting to come to light.

"More and more, we're seeing young people, as a young as 20 come in, with cirrhosis of the liver from alcohol," says Dr. Brian Lee, a hepatologist and liver transplant specialist at the University of Southern California's Keck Hospital. "What we're seeing most of are young adults, women, and ethnic minorities, who have been most affected by alcohol-associated liver disease in recent years. What we're seeing, is probably an acceleration of trends for COVID-19, as these are the groups that have had the most stress and burden from the pandemic as well."

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Lee contributed to a Kaiser Family Foundation study that says across the country, there has been a 30% to 50% increase in hospitalizations due to alcohol-associated liver disease, most of which is cirrhosis, meaning end-stage liver scarring.

"The definition of heavy drinking is four drinks per day for women and five drinks per day for men. But we know that liver disease can happen at lower levels. So liver disease can happen at one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men."

Lee says people with cirrhosis, on average, have a life expectancy of five years. "The most common causes of death from cirrhosis are infection and bleeding, which can happen very quickly."

Lee says most people with cirrhosis don't have any symptoms, so if you drink regularly or heavily he says, "it's very important to be screened and diagnosed with liver disease before you develop symptoms."

The only treatments are to quit drinking and a liver transplant.

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