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).

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 and the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC).

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 (Aird 2020; Clifton 2020a). 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 August 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 (bottle shops etc.), while spending on alcohol services (pubs and clubs etc.) saw a decline (Aird 2020; Clifton 2020a, Allen 2020a, Allen 2020b, Clifton 2020b, Guesnon 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 August. Decreases in spending in pubs and clubs continues to be offset by increases in spending in bottle shops etc.

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).

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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).
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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, and 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

Wave 1 of the Australians' Drug Use: Adapting to Pandemic Threats (ADAPT) Study, conducted between 29 April to 15 June 2020, asked 702 people who 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. Among people who had recently used each drug type:

  • more than half (57%) reported an increase in cannabis use, while 15% reported a decrease (Figure COVID3)
  • two in five (41%) reported an increase in alcohol consumption, one-third (33%) reported a decrease and 26% said it was stable
  • almost half of people who used MDMA reported a decrease in use (49%), likewise for people who used cocaine (45%) and ketamine (44%)
  • most people who used pharmaceutical opioids, benzodiazepines and GHB reported their use was stable (56%, 55% and 55%, respectively)
  • only 4% had accessed drug treatment and 3% reported they had tried but were unable to access drug treatment in the previous 4 weeks (Sutherland et al. 2020).
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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. Preliminary findings from the first half of the sample (389 participants) found that when compared with before March 2020:

  • most reported either no change or a decrease in their drug use
  • more than one-third (35%) reported they had used a different main drug in the past month (compared with the drug used in February 2020)—the most common change was from the use of ecstasy/MDMA to cannabis.
  • around half of participants reported that MDMA pills were harder to obtain while most reported that the availability of cannabis was stable
  • only a small proportion (6%) of participants reported they had difficulty accessing support from alcohol and other drug services (Peacock et al. 2020).

Impact of COVID-19 on people who inject drugs in Melbourne: first/preliminary analyses (Burnet Institute)

The Burnet Institute conducted interviews with 60 members of their Melbourne Injecting Drug User Cohort Study (SuperMIX) between 29 March and 1 May 2020. A modified questionnaire was used which included new questions specifically related to COVID-19 restrictions and also allowed comparisons to be made with data collected from interviews conducted with different participants before COVID-19 restrictions were implemented. While this initial study of people who inject/use drugs found that COVID-19 restrictions have had limited impacts on drug purchase and use:

  • 20% reported that they had wanted to purchase heroin in the last month but were unable to because of supply, financial and transport issues.
  • 40% of those who purchased heroin after March 29 believed that the purity of the heroin was weaker than normal.
  • 11% reported an increase in the frequency of alcohol consumption.
  • 13% of the people who smoked reported smoking more (Dietze et al. 2020).

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 approximately 2,400 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 was 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 (38%) police detainees in Perth reported using metamphetamine than in the previous 3 months (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.

References

ABA (Alcohol Beverages Australia) 2020. Impact of COVID-19 on the drinks industry. Viewed 26 May 2020.

ABS 2020. Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, 29 Apr - 4 May 2020. Viewed 18 May 2020.

ADF (Alcohol and Drug Foundation) 2020. How mass trauma affects alcohol use. Viewed 29 April 2020.

Aird G 2020. Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Global Economic & Markets Research report: CBA Card Spend – week ending 20 March 2020. Viewed 29 April 2020.

Allen B. 2020a. Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Global Economic & Markets Research report: CBA Card Spend – week ending 29 May 2020. Viewed 6 July 2020.

Allen B. 2020b. Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Global Economic & Markets Research report: CBA Card Spend – week ending 26 June 2020. Viewed 6 July 2020.

Allen B. 2020c. Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Global Economic & Markets Research report: CBA Card Spend – week ending 24 July 2020. Viewed 5 August 2020.

Biddle N, Edwards B, Gray M & Sollis K (2020). Alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 period: May 2020. ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods: Canberra. Viewed 10 June 2020.

Clifton K 2020a. Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Global Economic & Markets Research report: CBA Card Spend – week ending 3 April 2020. Viewed 29 April 2020.

Clifton K 2020b. Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Global Economic & Markets Research report: CBA Card Spend – week ending 7 August 2020. Viewed 14 August 2020.

Dietze P, Maher L & Stoove M 2020. Impact of COVID-19 on people who inject drugs in Melbourne: first/preliminary analyses. Melbourne: Burnet Institute.

Dietze P & Peacock A 2020. Illicit drug use and harms in Australia in the context of COVID-19 and associated restrictions: Anticipated consequences and initial responses. Drug and Alcohol Review. 2020 May; 39(4):297-300. Viewed 26 May 2020.

DoH (Department of Health) 2020a. Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) coronavirus (COVID-19) statement on 18 March 2020. Canberra: DoH. Viewed 29 April 2020.

DoH 2020b. Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) coronavirus (COVID-19) statement on 22 March 2020. Canberra: DoH. Viewed 29 April 2020.

DoH 2020c. Coronavirus (COVID-19) health alert. Canberra: DoH. Viewed 29 April 2020.

DoH 2020d. Easing of coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions. Canberra: DoH. Viewed 30 June 2020.

FARE (Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education) 2020. Alcohol sales and use during COVID-19. Canberra: FARE. Viewed 29 April 2020.

Geusnon N 2020. Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Global Economic & Markets Research report: CBA Card Spend – ending 21 August 2020. Viewed 1 September 2020.

Hunt, the Hon. G 2020. Additional $6 million to support drug and alcohol services during COVID-19. Media release by Minister for Health. 24 April 2020. Canberra. Viewed 29 April 2020.

Peacock A, Price O, Dietze P, Bruno R, Salom C, Lenton S et al. 2020. Impacts of COVID-19 and associated restrictions on people who use illicit stimulants in Australia: Preliminary findings from the Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System 2020. Drug Trends Bulletin Series. Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW Sydney.

State Government of Victoria 2020. Coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions Victoria. Details on restrictions in Victoria to slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Melbourne. Viewed 14 August 2020.

Sutherland R, Baillie G, Memedovic S, Hammoud M, Barratt M, Bruno R et al. 2020. Key findings from the ‘Australians’ DrugUse: Adapting to Pandemic Threats (ADAPT)’ Study. ADAPT Bulletin no. 1. Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW Sydney.

Voce A, Finney, Gately N  & Sullivan T 2020. COVID-19 pandemic constricts methamphetamine supply in Perth. Statistical Bulletin 29. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. Viewed 2 September 2020.