Impacts of COVID-19 on alcohol and other drug use

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic (DoH 2020c), a range of measures were introduced in Australia in mid-March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19 (DoH 2020a). These measures were extended in late March 2020 with all non-essential services ordered by the Australian Government to temporarily close. This included licensed liquor outlets such as pubs and clubs, excluding bottle shops attached to these venues (DoH 2020b).

As a result of these measures, it was expected that variations in sales and consumption of alcohol, drinking patterns and illicit drug use will have an impact on the Australian population (ADF 2020; Dietze & Peacock 2020). As such, the Australian Government announced in April 2020 that an additional $6 million would be allocated to online and phone support services for people experiencing drug and alcohol problems (Hunt 2020).

Restrictions eased in most jurisdictions in mid-2020, with the exception of Victoria, which continued with lockdown measures into November 2020.

Several studies have been undertaken or are underway, with the specific aim of assessing the impact of COVID-19.

To date, no clear patterns of the effects of COVID-19 restrictions on alcohol and other drug consumption have emerged, with many people reporting unchanged levels of consumption. Longitudinal data now available suggest that participants in these surveys may have initially increased or decreased consumption, but then reversed that pattern of consumption at the next data collection point (Ritter et al. 2020).

Data sources are not directly comparable and care should be taken when interpreting data; see the Data Quality statement on each source for further information on collection time periods, sample selection and methods.

View the Alcohol and other drugs during COVID-19 fact sheet >

Spending on alcohol

Commonwealth Bank of Australia – card spend data

Data from the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) on weekly card spending found that although total spending on alcohol increased in March 2020, the pattern reversed in April 2020 (CBA 2020). The increase in spending in March may be due to the stockpiling of alcohol in response to concerns that bottle shops would be closed if tighter restrictions were introduced (G Aird 2020, pers. comm., 14 May).

Throughout the period May 2020 to early February 2021, CBA card spending on alcohol continued to be higher than in the same weekly period for the previous year. The proportional change in total alcohol spending when compared with the same weekly period in the previous year has varied between 4% and 24% between May 2020 to February 2021. This increase was driven by spending on alcohol goods (such as bottle shops).

Spending on alcohol services (such as pubs and clubs) saw a decline until mid-November 2020, when there was an increase in spending on alcohol services for the first time since COVID-19 restrictions were introduced (CBA 2020). From November 2020 to early February 2021, weekly spending was higher than for the same period in the previous year (CBA 2021).

Total alcohol spending (compared to the same weekly period in the previous year) may be influenced by changes in restrictions. For example, the easing of restrictions in June 2020 (DoH 2020d) coincided with an increase in total alcohol spending while tighter restrictions being reinstated in Victoria during July 2020 (State Government of Victoria 2020) coincided with a decrease. There are several caveats to note when interpreting the Commonwealth Bank of Australia card spending data including:

  • an increase in spending does not necessarily equate to an increase in consumption
  • weekly data are volatile and as such comparisons are generally made to the same period in the previous year rather than week on week
  • there has been a general increase in spending on cards compared with the previous year and this inflates the percentage change when comparing to the previous year (G Aird 2020, pers. comm., 14 May).

For more information, see Data quality: Commonwealth Bank of Australia, CBA Card Spend.

Along with declines in the value of alcohol sales, leading alcohol producers and distributors have also reported declines in the volume of alcohol sold in April 2020 when compared with the previous year. The percentage change in the volume of alcohol sold ranged from 6.8% lower for wine to 61% lower for cider. While the volume of alcohol sold in the first 2 weeks of May 2020 had increased, the volume sold was still lower when compared with the same period in 2019 (ABA 2020).

Purchase and consumption of alcohol and other drugs

The results from several self-reported surveys have produced mixed findings with regard to the impact of COVID-19 on the consumption of alcohol and other drugs. Some examples of these findings are provided below. For more information about these self-reported surveys, see the Data Quality section.

ANUPoll

The 34th ANUpoll collected information between 12–24 May 2020 from 3,219 respondents aged 18 years and over across Australia. Respondents were asked several specific questions related to changes in alcohol consumption during COVID-19 and about their consumption of tobacco and illicit drugs (Biddle et al. 2020a).

With regard to changes in alcohol consumption:

  • of those who reported that they drank at all (excluding those who said they never drink alcohol), a higher proportion of respondents reported that their alcohol consumption decreased since the spread of COVID-19 in Australia (27%, compared with 20% who said it had increased).
  • a higher proportion of females reported that their alcohol consumption had increased (18.1% compared with 15.5% for males). Note: those who said that they never drink alcohol were included in this analysis as not having changed their alcohol consumption.
  • of those who reported an increase in alcohol consumption, nearly half (46%) said that the increase was 1–2 standard drinks per week and 28% reported an increase of 3-4 standard drinks (Figure COVID1).
  • The most common reason given for increased alcohol consumption was that the person is spending more time at home (67% for males and 64% for females). The next most common response for males was ‘Boredom, nothing else to do’ (49%) while for females it was ‘Increased stress’ (42%). Note, respondents were able to nominate more than one reason (Biddle et al. 2020a).

Figure COVID1: Increased alcohol use during COVID-19, people aged 18 and over (per cent)

This infographic shows that 1 in 5 people reported increased alcohol use during COVID-19. Of those, almost half had an extra 1–2 drinks per week and 28%25 had an extra 3–4 drinks. Females were more likely than males to report increased use (18.1%25 compared to 15.5%25).

Note: The comparison for males and females included people who said they never drink alcohol as "no change" in alcohol consumption.

Source: AIHW. Adapted from 34th ANUPoll.

Respondents were also asked how often, if at all, they currently smoked tobacco and whether their level of illicit drug use had increased. There was little change in the proportion of current smokers in the May 2020 sample—11.8% were current smokers compared with 12.2% who were current smokers when they were recruited to the panel. For respondents who used illicit drugs, more than one quarter (26%) reported a decrease in their consumption while 17.6% reported an increase (Biddle et al. 2020a).

ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey

The ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey collects information from approximately 1,000 people fortnightly throughout Australia. Several survey waves have included questions about alcohol and other drug consumption.

Wave 3 (29 April–4 May 2020) of the survey included a question about changes in smoking and the consumption of alcohol and prescription medicines in the previous 4 weeks due to COVID-19 (ABS 2020a).

  • Nearly half (47.1%) of participants said their consumption of alcohol stayed the same, and 28.9% reported that they do not usually consume alcohol.
    • 14.4% reported an increase—a higher proportion of females (18%) than males (10.8%) reported increased alcohol consumption.
    • 9.5% reported a decrease (ABS 2020a).
  • Almost 9 in 10 (87.5%) people reported that they did not usually smoke, and a further 9.0% said their tobacco consumption (including cigarettes, cigars, e-cigarettes and other tobacco products) stayed the same.
  • Most people said their consumption of prescription or over the counter medications stayed the same (62.4%) or that they did not usually consume medications (34.9%) (ABS 2020a).

Wave 7 (24–29 June 2020) of the survey also included a question about consumption of alcohol in the last 2 weeks compared to usual consumption before March 2020 (ABS 2020b). Notably, participants who reported that they did not usually consume alcohol were included in Wave 3 (April–May 2020) but excluded from analysis in Wave 7 (June 2020). However, results were broadly similar across both waves.

  • Most people reported that their alcohol consumption stayed at the same level (71.5%) or decreased (14.7%) compared to before March 2020, and 13.9% reported drinking more (Figure COVID2).
  • Females (15.9%) remained more likely than males (12.1%) to report increased alcohol consumption (ABS 2020b).

Figure COVID2: Change in alcohol use during COVID-19 among people aged 18 and over (per cent)

This infographic shows changes in alcohol consumption in June 2020 compared to before March 2020. In June 2020 in the past 2 weeks, 71.5%25 of people aged 18 and over reported that they drank the same amount of alcohol, 14.7%25 drank less and 13.9%25 drank more.

Note: Data collection took place from 24–29 June 2020. Participants were asked to report on their alcohol consumption in the last 2 weeks compared to usual consumption before March 2020.

Source: AIHW. Adapted from Wave 7 of the ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey.

National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program

The National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program (NWDMP) measures the presence of substances in over 57 sewerage treatment plants across Australia; in 2020, this covered approximately 56% of the population. Reports 11 to 13 of the program covered the period from December 2019 to December 2020 for both regional and capital city sites. Report 12 also included a comparison of population-weighted average consumption of substances in wastewater between August 2019 and August 2020 (ACIC 2021a).

When comparing the August 2019 and August 2020 data, average consumption increased across most drug types, including alcohol (regional areas only), cannabis, cocaine, heroin, and MDMA (capital cities only) (Figure COVID3). However, the patterns of consumption across drug types varied at different time points during 2020.

Figure COVID3: Changes in the estimated population-weighted average consumption of drugs monitored in wastewater from August 2019 to August 2020

The figure shows changes in detections of substances in wastewater from August 2019 to August 2020. The population-weighted average estimated consumption of alcohol decreased in capital cities, and increased in regional areas. Other drug types can be selected; these are cannabis, cocaine, heroin, MDMA, and methylamphetamine.

The introduction of COVID-19 restrictions nationally in March 2020 had a notable effect on alcohol consumption. The usual increase in weekend consumption became less common as pubs, clubs and restaurants who serve alcohol either closed or had restricted customer numbers. Once restrictions were eased in June 2020, several jurisdictions showed a rebound in alcohol consumption, with weekend use once again markedly higher than weekday use (ACIC 2021b).

Many jurisdictions observed a decrease in methylamphetamine consumption after the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions in early 2020. However, record high levels were detected for methylamphetamine in regional areas in April 2020. This was followed by a decrease, with the lowest levels of methylamphetamine being recorded by the program in August 2020 in both capital cities and regional areas (ACIC 2021a). Between August and December 2020 there has been a slow increase in consumption of methylamphetamine, with use returning to pre-COVID19 levels (ACIC 2021b).

COVID-19 restrictions briefly interrupted measured levels of cocaine in April 2020, however, record high levels were reported for capital city consumption of cocaine in June 2020. Levels of cocaine consumption in December 2020 were generally at pre-COVID-19 levels or slightly higher, including in Victoria with its extended lockdown.

Record high levels were also reported for:

  • Cannabis consumption in capital cities in June 2020 and in regional areas in August 2020.
  • Heroin consumption in regional areas in April 2020 and in capital cities in August 2020.

In 2020, MDMA use across Australia decreased to some of the lowest levels since the Wastewater drug monitoring program commenced in 2016. Consumption levels of the drug began to increase as COVID-19 restrictions were eased in mid-2020.

UNSW longitudinal study of drinking behaviours in NSW associated with lockdown measures

The UNSW longitudinal study of drinking behaviours is an online survey conducted in waves matched to alcohol-related policy changes in NSW (Baseline: Pre-lockdown; Wave 1: NSW Lockdown; Wave 2: Easing of restrictions).

For the matched sample of 287 participants at Wave 2: Easing restrictions, the direction of change reported at Wave 1 (i.e. consumption decreased, increased or remained the same) was generally sustained overall. However, the patterns of changes in alcohol consumption were not consistent for all participants (Ritter el al. 2020).

  • Of those who reported increased consumption during Wave 1: Lockdown:

    • the majority (72%) returned to a level that was similar to the Baseline at Wave 2 (the average number of standard drinks per week reported for each wave was 12, 24 and 14, Baseline, Wave 1 and Wave 2 respectively)
    • 19% had remained at that level during Wave 2 (an average of 7.5, 14 and 13.5 standard drinks per week, Baseline, Wave 1 and Wave 2 respectively)
    • however, for 1 in 10 (9.5%), the initial increase was followed by a further increase at Wave 2 (an average of 12, 17 and 31 standard drinks per week, Baseline, Wave 1 and Wave 2  respectively) (Ritter et al. 2020).
  • Of those who reported decreased consumption during Wave 1: Lockdown:

    • 47% remained at that level during Wave 2 (the average number of standard drinks per week reported for each wave was 11, 2 and 2, Baseline, Wave 1 and Wave 2 respectively)
    • however, for 41% the initial decrease was followed by an increase at Wave 2 (an average of 18, 4 and 14 standard drinks per week, Baseline, Wave 1 and Wave 2 respectively)
    • for 12%, the initial decrease was followed by a further decrease at Wave 2 (an average of 31, 23 and 13 standard drinks per week, Baseline, Wave 1 and Wave 2 respectively) (Ritter et al. 2020).

Alcohol sales and use during COVID-19 (FARE)

The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) conducted a poll of 1,045 Australians aged 18 years and over during the period 3–5 April 2020. The key finding from this poll was that one in five (20%) respondents reported that their household had bought more alcohol than usual since the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia in early 2020. Of those respondents:

  • 70% reported they were drinking more alcohol than usual
  • 34% were now drinking alcohol daily
  • 28% reported they were drinking alcohol to cope with anxiety and stress
  • 32% were concerned with the amount of alcohol either they, or someone else in their household is drinking (FARE 2020).

Australians' Drug Use: Adapting to Pandemic Threats (ADAPT) Study

The Australians' Drug Use: Adapting to Pandemic Threats (ADAPT) Study asked Australians who had used illicit drugs at least once a month in 2019 about their drug use during COVID-19 restrictions (Wave 1: “from the beginning of March 2020”; Waves 2, 3 and 4: “in the past 4 weeks”) as compared to before March 2020. The initial online survey (Wave 1) is to be followed up at intervals between 2 months and 3 years. Data collection periods for the first four waves are as follows:

  • Wave 1: 29 April–15 June 2020
  • Wave 2: 29 June–22 September 2020
  • Wave 3: 29 October 2020–13 January 2021
  • Wave 4: 29 April­–20 July 2021 (Bailie et al. 2021)

Preliminary findings relate to the 197 participants who completed all  surveys from Waves 1–4. Wave 4 findings show that, among people who had recently used each drug type, compared to before March 2020:

  • Across all the drug types, cannabis (33%) and e-cigarettes (43%) had the largest proportion of participants reporting that their use had increased in the last 4 weeks. This is the first time the proportion of people increasing their use of e-cigarettes has been higher than those increasing their use of cannabis and alcohol.
  • The proportion of Wave 4 participants who decreased their perceived alcohol use in the past 4 weeks was the highest since the study began (38%).
  • MDMA (49%), nitrous oxide (43%) and cocaine (42%) had the highest proportions of people reporting decreased use in the last four weeks, as compared to before March 2020.
  • GHB (55%) and hallucinogenic mushrooms (53%) had the highest proportions of people reporting that their use in the last 4 weeks had remained stable (Figure COVID4) (Baillie et al. 2021).

Figure COVID4: Change in alcohol or illicit drug use since March 2020 among people aged 18 and over who use illicit drugs at least monthly, by drug type (per cent)

This figure shows that, at Wave 1 (29 April–15 June 2020), over 2 in 5 (45%) people increased their alcohol use. This declined to 35% at Wave 2, 34% at Wave 3 and 28% at Wave 4 (29 June–22 September 2020, 29 October 2020–13 January 2021 and 29 April 2020–20 July 2021 respectively). By contrast, the proportion of people who reported stable use steadily increased from 25% at Wave 1 to 37% at Wave 3 before decreasing slightly to 34% at Wave 4. Around 1 in 3 people (29%–33%) reported a decrease in alcohol use in Waves 1–3 before increasing  to 38% in Wave 4. Other drug types can be selected via a drop-down menu.

Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS)

The Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS) was adapted to collect information about the experiences during COVID-19 (since March 2020) of people who regularly use ecstasy and other stimulants. Findings from the 805 participants indicate that when past month use was compared with February 2020:

  • most reported either a decrease (52%) or no change (31%) in their overall frequency of use of ecstasy and related drugs in the past month as compared to February; 17% reported an increase
  • the largest decrease was reported for the use of ecstasy/MDMA (70% of those who reported use in the past six months)
  • the largest increase was reported for the use of cannabis; two in five (41%) consumers reported an increase in use of cannabis
  • more than one-third (37%) of the total sample reported they had used a different main drug in the past month—the most common change was from the use of ecstasy/MDMA to cannabis
  • for most drugs the reported perceived availability was stable, however, almost half of participants reported that crystal methamphetamine (46%) and MDMA pills (45%) were harder to obtain (Peacock et al. 2020a).

Only a small proportion (4%) of participants reported they had difficulty accessing support from alcohol and other drug services (Peacock et al. 2020a).

Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS)

The Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) was adapted to collect information about the experiences during COVID-19 (since the beginning of March 2020) of people who regularly inject drugs. Data collection took place between June–September 2020. Findings from 884 participants indicate that, when past month use was compared with February 2020:

  • one-quarter (25%) reported an increase in injecting frequency
  • 12% reported a change in the drug they injected most often
  • most people reported no change in the use of each drug, except for methamphetamine (48% reported a perceived decrease in use) and heroin (36% decreased) (Peacock et al. 2021).

Among participants who were in treatment in the 6 months prior to interview, almost half (49%) reported disruption to their treatment since March. This included moving to phone or video (rather than face-to-face; 34%) or changes to hours of service (17%).

Drug Use Monitoring in Australia

The Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) program is an ongoing monitoring program that captures information on illicit drug use among police detainees across 5 locations throughout Australia.

Data from the 2020 DUMA report indicate that methamphetamine use and markets were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, past-month use of methamphetamine fell from 55% of police detainees in Quarter 1 (January–February; pre-COVID restrictions) to 39% in Quarter 4 (October–November). Among those who reported past-month use of methamphetamine:

  • Median ratings of methamphetamine availability decreased from Quarter 1 (January–February; pre-COVID restrictions) to Quarter 3 (July–August), but increased again in Quarter 4 (October–November).
  • After Quarter 1, detainees reported a decrease in the frequency and quantity of methamphetamine consumed, as well as a decrease in the quality of methamphetamine (Voce & Sullivan 2021).

Among detainees who reported past-month use of heroin, median ratings of availability and quality also declined after Quarter 1, with availability ratings increasing in Quarter 4 (Voce & Sullivan 2021).

Physical and mental health and treatment

Physical and mental health

The January 2021 ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey (18–31 January 2021) asked Australians aged 18 and over to describe strategies they used to manage their physical and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic (ABS 2021). This included questions about changes in use of alcohol and other drugs, for example cutting down alcohol use.

  • Physical health: 5.9% of people said they had cut out or reduced alcohol consumption to manage their physical health since 1 March 2020 due to COVID-19, and 1.2% reported quitting or reducing smoking.
    • Females (6.2%) were more likely than males (5.5%) to report cutting out or reducing alcohol consumption for their physical health.
  • Mental health: 3.2% of people reported using alcohol or drugs and 1.8% reported using prescription medicines as a strategy to manage their mental health since 1 March 2020 due to COVID-19. Conversely, 1.9% reported cutting out alcohol or drugs to manage their mental health.
    • Females (2.5%) were more likely than males (0.8%) to report using prescription medicines as a strategy for mental health.
    • Males were more likely than females to report using alcohol or drugs for their mental health (3.6% compared to 3.0%), but were also more likely to report cutting out alcohol or drugs (2.6%, compared to 1.5% for females) for the same reason.

The 2020 IDRS (June–September 2020) asked people who inject illicit drugs to rate their mental health in the past 4 weeks as opposed to February 2020, before COVID-19 restrictions were introduced (Peacock et al. 2021). Almost 1 in 3 (32%) participants said their mental health was 'worse' than in February 2020, 50% said it was 'similar', and 18% said their mental health was 'better' (Peacock et al. 2021).

Access to alcohol and other drug treatment

Data from the 34th ANUPoll showed that there has been a significant unmet need for drug and alcohol counselling during the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2020, 0.5% of Australians aged 18 and over said they needed drug or alcohol counselling in the last 2 months. Of these, just under 2 in 5 (39.4%) people sought help (Biddle & Gray 2020b). A total of 78,360 Australians reported they needed drug or alcohol counselling and either did not seek support or experienced significant barriers to treatment. Barriers included cost and not knowing who to contact (Biddle & Gray 2020b).  

Data from the Australians' Drug Use: Adapting to Pandemic Threats (ADAPT) Study indicate that 6% of people who regularly use illicit drugs had accessed drug treatment across 4 surveys conducted from April 2020 to July 2021 (6% in Wave 3, 7% in Wave 2 and 4% at Wave 1). At Wave 4 (April–July 2021), 0.5% of respondents reported that they had tried to access drug treatment in the past 4 weeks but were unable to. This is compared to 2% at Waves 1–3  (Baillie et al. 2021).

The 2020 IDRS (June–September 2020) included questions about changes to alcohol and other drug treatment since March 2020 among people who inject drugs (Peacock et al. 2021).

  • Among participants who were in treatment in the 6 months prior to interview, almost half (49%) reported disruption to their treatment since March. This included moving to phone or video (rather than face-to-face; 34%) or changes to hours of service (17%).
  • 3 in 4 (75%) participants who were on opioid agonist therapy (OAT; n=373) reported no change in their dose since March, and 42% reported that the frequency of pharmacy doses remained mostly stable. Where participants experienced treatment changes, the most common changes reported were increases in take-away doses (25%) and increases in dose (14%).

Further information

This release includes data relating to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic up to February 2021. For other data and information from this period, please see our AIHW COVID-19 resources.