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'Atlantic' Editor Says America Has A Drinking Problem

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is summer, or just about, and pandemic restrictions are rolling back. So for many Americans, it is time to party again. But according to our next guest, that could be a problem because for too many Americans, the party had already started, or rather the drinking had, but without the conviviality that actually goes with actually having a party. According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in February, consumption of alcohol was already increasing in the U.S. before 2020, but it went up even more over the past year as nearly a quarter of Americans reported drinking more to cope with their pandemic stress.

Kate Julian wrote about this for The Atlantic. Her piece is titled "America Has A Drinking Problem," and she is with us now to tell us more about it. Kate Julian, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

KATE JULIAN: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So a quarter of Americans say they've been drinking more because of the pandemic. Are there any other indications of this?

JULIAN: There are. So we know that sales or volume sales of liquor and wine are both up over the course of the pandemic. And that's particularly remarkable given that alcohol sales and consumption had been rising pretty steadily for the past two decades. So this is a rise on top of a long rise. Another thing that's concerning is that people report that the number of days they were drinking, you know, per week or per month rose.

And finally, as you note, there's this idea that the kind of drinking that's going on isn't so much the social kind, which I argue in my Atlantic article has some actually really important benefits, but rather the I'm stressed out, I'm anxious, I'm depressed kind. And that's the kind of drinking that experts say is more likely to set you up for drinking problems down the road. I know certainly that I engaged in some of that drinking myself.

MARTIN: Can I - do you mind if I ask how you started to notice this yourself? I know that the whole question of how alcohol is consumed was a big issue over the pandemic because so many - well, restaurants, for example, were begging to be able to serve alcohol as a takeout. A lot of restaurants were saying, look; if we can't do this, we're not going to make it. So there's been a lot of discussion around, you know, where you get your alcohol, like, how you get it just as part of the kind of whole conversation around the economy. But how did you start thinking about this? Because I take your point from this piece. This isn't just a - this is exacerbated by the pandemic, but it's not caused by the pandemic, right?

JULIAN: Yeah. So the first thing I would really quickly highlight is that I don't think alcohol itself is the problem. And, in fact, as I discuss in the piece, alcohol, when consumed in the right context, namely socially, has some really important social and psychological benefits. The problem is more the way we're consuming it.

I first started thinking about that a few years ago when I noticed that newer supermarkets in the Washington, D.C., area, where I live, were including beer and wine bars. And the idea was that you were supposed to shop and sip. And I like wine as much as the next person, but I remember thinking this was really odd. Like, how are you supposed to be drinking wine and wrangling a shopping cart? It just didn't make a lot of sense. At the same time, I noticed alcohol showing up in all sorts of other spaces that it hadn't really been in before, like movie theaters, Starbucks. I noticed dads carrying beer around the National Zoo, and I thought, this is really peculiar.

MARTIN: Do you think that's indicative of something? I mean, one of the - is it that people feel that their lives are just very stressful overall? Or what do you think it means?

JULIAN: I think it is. I mean, I think it's partially a reflection of the fact that some of the spaces in which we used to drink have kind of disappeared. The number of bars in this country has been dropping for decades. The amount of time that people spend in bars has been dropping. We also know the amount of time people spend socializing with people outside their household face to face has been declining. So some of it is just, you know, we're drinking alcohol that we were always drinking, but if it's not happening in the social context, it's going to be happening in other places.

And I think some of it is, frankly, the response to the stressors of our times, right? One of the biggest increases in drinking over the past 20 years has been among moms and among women generally. And I think you can really make a case that women, who are known to be more likely to self-medicate for anxiety and depression with alcohol than men are, are having trouble sort of balancing the many demands of modern digital life. And they're using wine as a way to distress at the end of the day.

MARTIN: May I ask if your research in this piece has guided your own behavior in any way?

JULIAN: It has. It has. So I think going forward that I'm going to take the advice of the author of a book that I cite in the piece. It's called "Drunk," and it's by Edward Slingerland. It's really excellent. And he talks about the long history of human drinking, really over the course of civilization. And he makes the point that we're really not cut out to drink liquor. Liquor is really a different beast than beer and wine, which people have been drinking for thousands and thousands of years. Liquor is far more recent. And he also makes the point, as I've said, that it's not really great to drink alone. It doesn't really have the same benefits. So speaking for myself, I'm probably going to stick to beer and wine, and I'm going to make more of an effort to make sure that I'm not doing it by myself, but that when I'm doing - when I'm drinking, it's with other people.

MARTIN: Kate Julian is a senior editor at The Atlantic. We've been talking about her latest piece titled "America Has A Drinking Problem." Kate Julian, thanks so much for talking to us today.

JULIAN: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.