Many studies suggest that disaster exposure is related to a subsequent increase in alcohol consumption. Most of these studies have relied on retrospective self-reports to measure changes in alcohol use. The aim of the present study was to examine the association between disaster exposure and drinking behaviors more closely, analyzing data on both self-perceived changes in alcohol consumption and current drinking habits in groups with different extents of disaster exposure.
A sample of Norwegian adults (≥ 18 years) who resided in areas affected by the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami (N = 899) were assessed by a postal questionnaire 6 months after the disaster. Based on detailed questions about experiences with the tsunami, participants were grouped according to their extent of disaster exposure. The Impact of Event Scale-Revised was applied to measure the level of post-traumatic stress. Participants were asked whether they had increased or decreased their alcohol consumption after the disaster. Moreover, weekly alcohol consumption and frequency of intoxication during the past month were used as indicators of current drinking behaviors.
Severely exposed individuals more often reported changing their alcohol consumption compared with those who were less exposed. Severe exposure to the tsunami was associated with both a self-perceived increase (OR 21.38, 95% CI 2.91–157.28) and decrease in alcohol consumption (OR 7.41, 95% CI 1.74–31.51). The odds ratios decreased and were not significant when adjusting for post-traumatic stress symptoms. Weekly consumption and frequency of intoxication during the past month did not vary with extent of disaster exposure.
Our findings indicate a polarization effect of severe disaster exposure on self-perceived changes in alcohol consumption; that is, disaster exposure was associated with self-perceived increases and decreases in drinking. However, the absence of associations between disaster exposure and indicators of current drinking behaviors suggests that the observed polarization effect may be overestimated because of attribution and recall bias.