(The Hill) — The average American drinks 60 percent more hard liquor now than in the mid-1990s, an unheralded surge in spirit consumption that signals changing tastes in alcohol.
Americans are drinking more wine, too: 50 percent more per person since 1995.
Overall, the average American consumed 2.51 gallons of ethanol, the alcohol in wine, beer and spirits, in 2021, compared to 2.15 gallons in 1995, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. If 2.5 gallons in a year sounds low, consider that the figure covers only alcohol, not water and other ingredients in an alcoholic drink.
In America’s embrace of adult beverages, the big loser is beer. Beer consumption is down about 15 percent since the mid-1990s.
Alcohol consumption has risen and fallen dramatically across the decades. The average person drank 2.5 gallons of alcohol in 1860, at the brink of the Civil War; 1 gallon in 1934, at the repeal of prohibition; 2.3 gallons in 1945, at the close of World War II; and 2.8 gallons in 1980, when modern-day drinking reached a historic peak.
A national campaign against drunken driving and underage drinking pushed alcohol consumption to a historic low around 1995. In the decades since, the figure has crept quietly back up.
In historical terms, we drink as much liquor now as in the Civil War days. The culture, demographics and economics of American drinking, however, could not be more different.
Women may hold the key to rising liquor consumption. Women are quickly closing the gender gap in drinking and problem drinking, categories formerly dominated by men. Men once outnumbered women 3 to 1 in drinking and binge drinking. Today, the genders are approaching parity.
“The story is women,” said Susan Stewart, a sociologist and demographer at Iowa State University. “Wines are marketed to women: the fancy labels with the flowers on them and the pretty colors.”
Stewart tracks “a normalization of alcohol in our daily lives” that is encouraging women and men to drink. “It’s infiltrated our daily activities that didn’t typically involve alcohol, like sporting events, or a 5K: there’s a beer tent at the end.”
Wine yoga. A beer fridge at work. Office happy hours. Cocktails at movie theaters. Bike-and-brew cycling trips. Wine-soaked book clubs. All of those modern conventions push alcohol to the center of social life, especially for women.
“We have the whole idea of ‘wine moms,’ women who have a glass of wine after a long day of looking after the kids,” said Rod Phillips, a professor of history at Carleton University and author of the book Alcohol: A History.
Cultural forces and relentless marketing have transformed attitudes toward spirits. Television programs such as Sex and the City helped to spawn a 1990s cocktail culture that thrived and spread in the 2000s, celebrating high-priced bar drinks.
Around the same time, hard-liquor manufacturers began advertising heavily on television, ending a decades-long, self-imposed ban that averted potential government restrictions.
“There was a huge change in spirits marketing beginning around the turn of the century,” said David Jernigan, a professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University.
“The spirits companies realized in the late ‘90s that they were getting their clocks cleaned by beer,” an industry that advertised freely on television. “There was a huge increase in spirits ads on TV,” from roughly 2,000 ads in 2001 to 63,000 ads in 2009.
Public policy toward alcohol, too, has shifted over the years.
At the height of U.S. alcohol consumption, in the 1980s, government and social activists collaborated to limit the nation’s intake.
Many states lowered the drinking age to 18 in the 1970s in response to the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age. A surge in drunken-driving deaths followed. In 1984, Congress set 21 as the national drinking age, capping a campaign by the nonprofit Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Since then, researchers say, public policy has favored the alcohol industry.
The federal government last raised its excise tax on alcohol in 1991. Excise taxes are based on volume, rather than price, so they have eroded in value over years of inflation. State taxes, too, have remained relatively flat.
One 2020 study found excise taxes declined in value by more than 70 percent between 1970 and 2018.
“The industry talks about fighting for stomach share” against dairies and soft drink companies, Jernigan said. “The declining effective tax rate makes their products more competitive with all the other liquids.”
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a fresh round of policy aimed at making liquor more accessible.
When the pandemic hit, most states declared that liquor stores were essential businesses. That decision came partly to aid people with alcohol use disorder who otherwise might have gone into withdrawal, and partly to keep casual drinkers happy.
“It became a heck of a lot easier to get alcohol. We introduced home delivery and carryout cocktails,” Jernigan said. “Now, you have DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber: Anybody can deliver alcohol to your door.”
Researchers feared the new rules made it too easy to get alcohol. They tested the delivery services in Massachusetts.
“One of my colleagues,” Jernigan said, “they delivered alcohol to her 10-year-old.”
Ramped-up marketing efforts, increased affordability, the COVID pandemic and changing norms for women all help explain why alcohol consumption is rising — at a time when waves of research suggest drinking causes more harm than good.
A series of influential meta-studies in recent years have more or less established that even moderate drinking raises the odds of illness and premature death.
The research community is divided, and the health risks from moderate drinking are small. But anyone who follows the news has absorbed the oft-stated maxim, “No amount of alcohol is good for you.”
And yet, Americans continue to drink more liquor, year after year.
Researchers theorize that drinkers have made peace with the mild health risks of alcohol, just as they have weighed the pleasures and perils of consuming a ribeye steak or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
“They think of it more like desserts they eat or meat,” said William Kerr, senior scientist at the nonprofit Alcohol Research Group. “And it’s kind of true. It has kind of similar long-term risks.”
In fact, researchers ascribe some of the increase in alcohol consumption to the generation that includes both Ben and Jerry. Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, came of age in an era of rising alcohol consumption. And they “are continuing to drink into older ages,” Kerr said.
About 63 percent of all Americans drink, according to Gallup polling. The figure has fluctuated between 55 percent and 71 percent since the late 1930s.
Wealthy and college-educated people are far more likely to drink than less affluent, less educated Americans. Churchgoers are less likely to drink than nonreligious people. White people are more likely to drink than Black or Hispanic people.
Underage drinking has declined precipitously in recent years, a public-health victory that gives researchers hope for a less alcoholic future.
“Alcohol drinking in adolescents has gone down consistently since the 1980s,” said Andrea King, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago. “We’re getting more binge drinking, but we’re getting a lot more students abstaining.”