The COVID‑19 pandemic and its associated government measures to limit mobility impacted on patterns and places of alcohol consumption worldwide, according to an OECD report. The crisis also increased risk that individuals engage in harmful drinking to cope with stress.
During the pandemic, there has been an increase in domestic violence, for which harmful alcohol consumption is a risk factor, says the 19 May 2021 report, which is part of the OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19) series and is titled “The effect of COVID-19 on alcohol consumption, and policy responses to prevent harmful alcohol consumption”.
Governments’ often stringent policies to contain the spread of the virus have generally been effective in keeping people at home. For example, 39% of workers in the OECD shifted to teleworking and millions of children switched to online learning and home schooling.
Leisure time was also affected with, for example, a sharp increase in time spent online. Drinking habits – quantity, frequency and place of drinking – have also changed.
“Harmful alcohol consumption damages health, causes diseases and injuries, weakens response to COVID‑19, and leads to significant economic and societal costs,” it stresses.
“Comprehensive policy packages built on a PPPP approach including Pricing policies, Policing to counter drink-driving, Primary care‑based counselling for heavy drinkers, and regulating alcohol Promotion activities, could improve health and support a stronger economic and social recovery in the aftermath of the pandemic.
According to the report, the latest OECD data suggests that:
1- Overall, most people did not change their drinking amount but among those who did, a larger proportion of them increased consumption.
Findings from a survey carried out in Australia, Austria, Brazil, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States between May and June 2020 show that 36% of individuals increased their consumption of alcohol, 22% decreased their consumption and 42% reported no change in the quantity drunk.
2- A small increase in alcohol purchases is also observed in government data monitoring sales, at least in countries for which data are available.
For example, in the United Kingdom, the total alcohol duty receipts showed a 4.5% increase in the period April to October 2020, compared to the same period in the previous year (data not adjusted for inflation).
Similarly, US data from 15 states suggest a 4% increase in the quantity of alcohol sold in the period January to August 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. German data show an increase in alcohol tax revenues of 3.3% in 2020, compared to 2019.
Stockpiling in the early phases of the pandemic may have also contributed to these trends.
3- People increased their drinking frequency, but binge drinking frequency was not greatly modified.
In the 11 countries for which data are available, 43% of individuals reported an increased drinking frequency, compared to a quarter of adults who decreased their drinking frequency.
The probability of binge drinking – drinking more than 80% of a bottle of wine or 1.5 litres of beer per drinking occasion – did not change for nearly half of the population. About 29% of the respondents reported binge drinking less frequently, though 23% said they binge drank more frequently.
4- While the hospitality sector, such as hotels, bars and restaurants, was severely hit by the crisis, other sectors such as retail stores and e‑commerce saw increasing sales.
Alcohol sales in bars, pubs, restaurants and nightclubs plummeted because of the lockdowns. But alcohol consumption increased at home, with a significant increase in sales in retail or online stores.
For instance, off-premise sales in Belgium, Spain and the United States showed a significant growth. Alcohol e‑commerce has increased in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Poland, the Russian Federation, South Africa, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with a +234% growth in the case of the United States.
Uneven consumption patterns
Harmful patterns of alcohol consumption such as underage drinking, heavy drinking, or binge drinking are highly prevalent in some population groups, and the COVID‑19 restrictions have intensified this tendency.
Prior to the COVID‑19 crisis, monthly binge drinking was a habit for one in three adults on average in OECD countries, with women with higher education and people with the lowest and the highest incomes particularly at risk.
In addition, alcohol is disproportionately consumed by a minority: people who drink heavily – that corresponds to men and women consuming more than 40 grammes and 20 grammes of pure alcohol per day, respectively – make up 4% to 14% of the population, depending on the country, but they consume between a third and half of all alcohol consumed, according to an analysis of six OECD countries.
During the COVID‑19 lockdowns, women, parents of young children, middle‑age people, people with higher income and individuals with depressive and anxiety symptoms reported the highest increase in alcohol consumption, for example in Australia, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Looking at the future, there is a risk that COVID‑19 causes an increase in problematic drinking in the medium term. Increased alcohol use is common after traumatic events, and excessive alcohol consumption can be a response to high stress levels.
Undoubtedly, COVID‑19 has disrupted people and communities across the world, creating the conditions for long-term physical and mental distress, increasing the risk of high levels of alcohol consumption, even after the crisis ends.
1- During the COVID‑19 pandemic, people have significantly changed drinking habits, shifting places of consumption from bars and restaurants to home.
For many people, alcohol is part of their social life, a life that has been significantly disrupted by COVID‑19. Overall, most people did not change how much they drank but, among those who did, a larger proportion of people drank more.
Looking at preliminary government tax receipt data, alcohol sales increased by 3% to 5% in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States in 2020 compared to 2019. Sales of alcohol in bars and restaurants plummeted, severely affecting this sector, while off-premise sales, such as e‑commerce and retail stores, grew significantly. For example, in the United States, online sales increased by up to 234%.
2- Some of the problems associated with harmful alcohol consumption were intensified by the crisis, even though the long-term impacts of COVID‑19 on alcohol consumption are uncertain.
During the COVID‑19 lockdowns, women, parents of young children, people with higher income and those with anxiety and depressive symptoms reported the highest increase in alcohol consumption, for instance in Australia, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Emergency calls about domestic violence, for which harmful alcohol consumption is a risk factor, rose by 60% in EU countries. There is also a risk that COVID‑19 causes an increase in problematic drinking in the medium term, given that excessive alcohol consumption is common after traumatic events as a response to high stress levels.
3- Harmful alcohol consumption takes a heavy toll on people, the economy and the society.
Over the next 30 years and on average across OECD countries, diseases and injuries caused by drinking more than 1 drink per day for women and 1.5 drinks per day for men – corresponding to lower-risk thresholds specifically used for the simulation – will cause life expectancy to be 0.9 years shorter than it otherwise would be; they will be also responsible for about 2.4% of total health expenditure; while GDP will be 1.6% lower than otherwise due to reduced workforce participation and productivity.
4- Governments have at their disposal a battery of policy interventions to tackle harmful alcohol consumption and prevent related diseases.
A policy package based on a ‘PPPP’ approach including Policing to counter drink-driving, strengthening Primary care‑based counselling for heavy drinkers, regulation on Promotion, including a ban on alcohol advertising to children, and Pricing policies particularly to target cheap alcohol has the potential to prevent diseases and injuries, increase life expectancy and generate savings that are greater than the implementation costs.
5- Preventing alcohol-related diseases and injuries has a triple dividend.
First, reducing alcohol use helps individuals cope with infections and develop immunity after vaccination. Second, preventing alcohol use and its associated diseases reduces pressure on health care services – which are already under heavy strain from COVID‑19. Third, with prevention of harmful alcohol consumption, a healthier and more productive population will better help restart economic activities and social life in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Investing in protecting children and people with problematic drinking is particularly important during the pandemic.
Primary care‑based counselling for heavy drinkers, regulation on advertising or promoting alcoholic beverages on TV, the Internet and social media targeting children, and minimum unit price policies targeting cheap alcohol, are particularly well suited to address some of the priority areas in alcohol policy during the COVID‑19 pandemic.
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