Impacts of COVID-19 on alcohol and other drug use

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic (DoH 2020c), social distancing measures were introduced in Australia in mid-March 2020 (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 is 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 over the mid-year period, with the exception of Victoria, which continued with lockdown measures into November 2020.

Data currently available in relation to the impact of COVID-19 on alcohol and other drug use are limited. Several studies have been undertaken or are underway, with the specific aim of assessing the impact of COVID-19, including research by the Australian National University (ANU) Social Research Centre, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) and the University of New South Wales.

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.

More information is available in the COVID-19 fact sheet.

Spending on alcohol

Commonwealth Bank of Australia – card spend data

Data from the Commonwealth Bank of Australia on weekly card spending found that although total spending on alcohol increased in March 2020, the pattern reversed in April 2020 (Commonwealth Bank of Australia 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 to early November 2020, CBA card spending on alcohol continued to be higher than in the same weekly period for the previous year. This increase was driven by spending on alcohol goods (such as bottle shops), while spending on alcohol services (such as pubs and clubs) saw a decline (Commonwealth Bank of Australia 2020).

The proportional change in total alcohol spending when compared with the same weekly period in the previous year has varied between 4% and 23% between May to November. Decreases in spending in pubs and clubs continue to be offset by increases in spending on alcohol goods (for example, bottle shops). Mid November saw an increase in spending on alcohol services for the first time since COVID-19 restrictions were introduced.

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).

Please also refer to the section 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. Please also refer to the Data quality section for information about these self-reported surveys.

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. 2020).

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. 2020).

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. 2020).

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

This card shows that 20% of people reported increased alcohol consumption. Of those, 46% had an extra 1–2 drinks per week and 28% had an extra 3–4 drinks per week. Females were also more likely than males to have increased use (18.1% and 15.5% respectively).

Visualisation not available for printing

ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey

The third ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, conducted throughout Australia between 29 April and 4 May 2020, included a question that can be used to assess changes in the consumption of alcohol and other drugs in the previous 4 weeks due to COVID-19 (ABS 2020). Findings were reported for the 1,022 respondents for 3 categories related to alcohol and other drugs.

  • Consumption of alcohol:
    • nearly half (47.1%) said it stayed the same
    • 28.9% reported that they do not usually consume alcohol
    • 14.4% reported an increase—a higher proportion of females reported increased alcohol consumption (18% compared with 10.8% for males)
    • 9.5% reported a decrease (Figure COVID2).
  • Smoking (cigarettes, cigars, e-cigarettes or other tobacco products):
    • the majority (87.5%) did not usually smoke
    • 9.0% said their consumption had stayed the same
    • 2.2% reported an increase in smoking
    • 1.2% reported a decrease (Figure COVID2).
  • Prescription or over the counter medications:
    • most (62.4%) said their consumption of prescription or over the counter medications stayed the same
    • one-third (34.9%) said they do not usually consume prescription or over the counter medications
    • 1.9% reported an increase
    • less than 1% (0.7%) reported a decrease (ABS 2020).

Figure COVID2: Change in alcohol and tobacco use during COVID-19, by people aged 19+, by drug type (per cent)

This figure shows that 47.1% reported no change in alcohol consumption, 28.9% reported that they do not usually consume alcohol, 14.4% reported an increase in alcohol consumption and 9.5% reported a decrease in alcohol consumption. The figure also shows that 87.5% didn’t smoke, 9% said their consumption had stayed the same, 2.2 reported an increase in smoking and 1.2% reported a decrease in smoking.

Visualisation not available for printing

National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program

The National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program (NWDMP), measures the presence of substances in sewerage treatment plants across Australia. Report 11 of the program covers the period from December 2019 to April 2020 for both regional and capital city sites, with June 2020 data available for capital city sites only. Over these periods, the patterns of consumption of alcohol and other drugs has varied across drug types and within jurisdictions.

The introduction of COVID-19 restrictions had a notable effect on alcohol consumption, with average consumption decreasing in every capital city except Victoria between December 2019 and April 2020. By June 2020, the population-weighted average consumption of alcohol increased to an average level that had not been recorded in capital city sites since June 2019, coinciding with easing of restrictions in most jurisdictions.

Nationally, the population-weighted average consumption reached record, or near record low levels for:

  • capital city consumption of alcohol and oxycodone and regional consumption of fentanyl in April 2020.

Conversely, record high levels of consumption were reported for:

  • capital city consumption of nicotine, cocaine and cannabis in June 2020 and regional methylamphetamine and heroin consumption in April 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 (from the beginning of March 2020) as compared to before. The initial online survey (Wave 1) is to be followed up at intervals between 2 months and 3 years. Preliminary findings from the 308 participants who completed both Wave 1 (29 April–15 June 2020) and Wave 2 (2-month follow up; 29 June–22 September 2020) surveys showed that among people who had recently used each drug type:

  • the highest proportion reporting increased use across the drug types was for cannabis—56% at Wave 1 and 44% at Wave 2.
    • Of those who reported an increase in cannabis use at Wave 1, 58% also reported an increase at Wave 2; the remaining 42% reported their use of cannabis had decreased or returned to pre-COVID levels.
  • the highest proportions reporting decreased use across the drug types in both Wave 1 and Wave 2 were for MDMA (49% for Wave 1 and 47% for Wave 2) and cocaine (39% for Wave 1 and 42% for Wave 2).
    • Of those who reported a decrease in MDMA and cocaine use at Wave 1, most reported their use remained lower at Wave 2 (68% for MDMA and 59% for cocaine). However, around 3 in 10 (28% for MDMA and 30% for cocaine) reported their use had returned to pre-COVID levels.
  • high proportions reported stable use at Wave 1 and Wave 2 for pharmaceutical opioids (56% and 66%, respectively), benzodiazepines (53% and 55%, respectively), GHB (50% and 57%, respectively) and e-cigarettes (44% and 60%, respectively).

A low proportion of respondents had accessed drug treatment at both waves (5% at Wave 2 and 4% at Wave 1) and 2% reported at both Waves 1 and 2 that they had tried but were unable to access drug treatment in the previous 4 weeks (Sutherland et al. 2020)

Figure COVID3: Change in alcohol and illicit drug use since March 2020, by people aged 18+ who regularly (at least monthly) use illicit drugs, by drug type (per cent)

This figure shows that the highest proportion reporting increased use across the drug types was for cannabis in Wave 1 (56%) and Wave 2 (44%). The highest proportions reporting decreased use across the drug types in both Wave 1 and Wave 2 were for MDMA (49% for Wave 1 and 47% for Wave 2).

Visualisation not available for printing

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; 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
  • more than one-third (37%) 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 March 2020) of people who regularly inject drugs. Findings from the 884 participants indicate that when past month use was compared with February 2020:

  • one-quarter (25%) reported a decrease in injecting frequency
  • 12% reported a change in the drug they injected most during the last month
  • most reported no change in the use of each drug, except for methamphetamine where most participants reported a decrease in their use (Peacock et al. 2020b).

Of those who did not receive recent drug treatment, 9% reported difficulties accessing treatment since March 2020. Half (49%) of participants who had received drug treatment since March reported disruption to their treatment, including moving to phone or video (rather than face-to-face) or changes to hours of service. While most participants who were on opioid agonist therapy (OAT) reported no change in this treatment since March, the most common changes reported were increases in take-away doses (25%) and increases in dose (14%). Difficulties accessing sterile needles and syringes since March was reported by 12% of participants and 5% reported difficulties in safely disposing of used needles and syringes (Peacock et al. 2020b).

Drug Use Monitoring in Australia

The Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) program is an ongoing illicit drug use monitoring program that captures information on police detainees per year, across 5 locations throughout Australia. Data collection for quarter 2 (April-June 2020) was impacted by COVID-19 restrictions and data were only collected in Perth for this collection period. Detainees reported that between Quarter 1 (January to March 2020, no COVID restrictions) and Quarter 2 (early COVID-19 restrictions):

  • fewer police detainees in Perth reported using methamphetamine than in the previous 3 months (38% in Quarter 2 compared to 57% in Quarter 1)
  • availability and quality of methamphetamine was lower than in the previous 3 months
  • the price of methamphetamine had increased threefold in the last 3 months (Voce et al. 2020).

Detainees also reported using methamphetamine less often than in the previous quarterly collection period.