At the height of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt reportedly said on the end of prohibition, “What America needs right now is a drink."

Now, in the midst of another crisis, America again needs a drink — and we are drinking.

According to a survey by market research firm Nilsen, off-premises sale of alcohol has spiked nationwide as stay-at-home orders were signed by mayors and governors. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered state liquor stores to shut down — leading to a flood of customers who cleared the shelves. After three weeks in which state liquor stores were closed, a site to facilitate online alcohol purchases went live only to crash due to the high demand. Delaware state police has been stopping and ticketing Pennsylvanian drivers crossing state line, against travel restrictions, to buy booze. Stores selling beer and wine in Philadelphia compare the current rush of alcohol sales to the holiday season — sans the cheer.

Whether it is a way to unwind from the stress of the pandemic or a packed calendar of Zoom happy hours in an effort to maintain a social life, an increase in alcohol drinking raises questions about long-term health impacts. The United States is already in the midst of a crisis of deaths driven by, among other things, alcohol-related liver disease. But according to Carl Hart, a neuroscientist at Columbia University and a researcher of drug use, there is no reason to think a wave of alcohol addiction will follow this pandemic — and new cases of addiction will be caused by the devastation the pandemic inflicted, not because of one drink too many.

Hart talked to The Inquirer about alcohol and drug use during the coronavirus pandemic. Responses have been edited lightly for length.

When does alcohol use become problematic?

When people drink alcohol, they drink it socially, to decompress, or in social settings. The amount of use may range from drinking alcohol once or twice a month to drinking a glass of wine every night after work.

We think of substance use disorder when someone’s use becomes problematic such that it worries and concerns them. They are concerned about their use and the use is disruptive. They’re not meeting their occupational obligations, their family obligations. They have tried unsuccessfully to cut down or quit. They may put themselves in harm’s way as a result of their use.

If people are drinking more now during coronavirus quarantines, does that mean that they will drink more after this is over?

[Let’s say] you take a week or two weeks vacation in Europe or the Caribbean, and you just have two weeks to chill and do what you do. You will drink a lot more — particularly if you go to the Caribbean you’ll, have a lot of rum. Whereas when you’re back home, when you have to go to work and do those kinds of things, you won’t.

We already do this. This is our life. We when we take our moments, our myopic moments with our loved ones, and it’s just us and we are decompressing and we have this extended period together like a vacation, we might be psycho-actively altered [meaning, under the influence of a alcohol or drugs] more than we are when we’re not on vacation. No big deal.

Dr. Carl Hart, an associate professor in the departments of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia University, is the author of the book High Price.
Courtesy of Carl Hart
Dr. Carl Hart, an associate professor in the departments of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia University, is the author of the book High Price.

What about drugs that people think about as highly addictive, like meth or heroin?

For all of those drugs, from methamphetamine to crack and heroin, the vast majority of people who use those drugs are not addicted. That’s just from the epidemiological perspective.

In the lab, even those who actually meet the criteria for substance use disorder or addiction will turn down their drug of choice under the right circumstances.

So what are the “right circumstances” for people to turn the drugs down?

You and I right now, you’re working and you know that you have to earn money to support your family and so therefore, you won’t be intoxicated now. The same is true in the laboratory.

If you tell people, “all right you can do methamphetamine now or you can earn some money on this math test, $1 or $5 for every response you get right.” And so it’s like, well, “I’m not going to use a drug now that might disrupt my performance on this. I’m going to do this math test and earn this money.”

We do this all the time in our society. You and I, we go to work in the mornings. Typically, we don’t get up and have a drink of alcohol because we want to be sharp and because we got to earn money to take care of our families.

Back to coronavirus, how does that change the conditions right now with how people are going to drink and use drugs?

There are a lot of people who are able to work at home, and chill, and enjoy themselves, and be psycho-actively altered — and they will be and they are — and then when this is over, they’ll go back to work and do their thing. And then then there’ll be other people who won’t go back to work [because of the coronavirus economic fallout] and they will have problems.

There won’t be a huge surge in addiction. That just won’t happen. But there’s going to be a surge in people blaming [economic outcomes of the pandemic on] drugs. Those same drugs will be used by people who are doing well. But then it’s going to be blamed for other people who are not doing well.