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New study finds troubling trend for people with alcohol use disorder in Arizona

Alcohol use increased across the U.S. during the pandemic, but it increased dramatically — and remains high — among Arizonans with the disorder.

Millennium Health, a national testing lab, compared 430,000 urine tests from 2019 to 2023.

“Most of the clinicians ordering these tests are substance use disorder treatment professionals,” said Eric Dawson, vice president of clinical affairs and the study’s author.

He said they found a 20% percent increase nationally in the alcohol detection rate among people with the disorder. In Arizona, it jumped 60%.

“I was initially very frustrated, disappointed, I would say even sad, given the alarming nature of the trends, but I would not say surprised,” he said. 

Dawson said the anxiety, grief, isolation, job losses, physical and mental health challenges that came with the pandemic, coupled with policies that expanded take out and delivery of alcohol, created a perfect storm for many people with alcohol use disorder.

“In the case of this population we saw very high levels of use of cocaine, methamphetamine, cannabis and a number of other drugs as well,” Dawson said. "And that further increases the risk for not only that individual, but also it adds to the challenges that their treatment providers face."

Among those with alcohol use disorder, he said use increased the most in people over 55.

“This is especially concerning because older individuals are especially prone to suffer adverse consequences of alcohol use," according to Dawson.

Dawson said alcohol use and pandemic associated increases were similar in men and women and "females tend to suffer greater alcohol related harm, and earlier than males, making this another concerning finding.” 

Two regions, New England and South Atlantic, showed decreases in alcohol rates among those with disorders. Dawson hopes researchers and clinicians in those regions will share information that could help explain the difference.

“We must also always remember that people can and do recover, right? I hear these stories every day,” he said. “And those are the stories that keep me going.”

In Arizona, Millennium Health analyzed more than 16,000 urine tests, mostly in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal Counties.

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.