Impacts of COVID-19 on alcohol and other drug use
In mid-March 2020, a range of measures were introduced in Australia 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).
Throughout the multiple waves of the pandemic, restrictions were implemented and eased sporadically across jurisdictions.
There have been 4 main waves of COVID-19 in Australia:
- Wave 1 – March/April 2020, the beginning of the pandemic, cases were reported in all states and territories
- Wave 2 – June/July of 2020 with the majority of cases reported in Victoria
- Wave 3 – June/July of 2021 mainly impacting New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria, lasting until the end of October 2021
- Wave 4 – December 2021 following the introduction of the Omicron variant affecting all states and territories.
Data sources presented here 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 >
Purchase and consumption of alcohol
During the initial stages of the pandemic, Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) card spend data showed an initial increase in spending on alcohol in March 2020, which may have been driven by stockpiling in response to concerns that bottle shops may close with the introduction of tighter restrictions. This pattern reversed in April 2020 (G Aird 2020, pers. comm.,14 May).
Throughout the period May 2020 to early February 2021, CBA card spending on alcohol goods (such as bottle shops) continued to be higher when compared to the equivalent period in the previous year while there was a decline in spending on alcohol services (such as pubs and clubs). This decline in spending on alcohol services (such as pubs and clubs) was reversed in mid-November 2020 for the first time since COVID-19 restrictions were introduced (CBA 2020).
There are several caveats to note when interpreting the CBA card spending data; refer to section Data quality: Commonwealth Bank of Australia, CBA Card Spend.
The increase in spending on liquor retailing is further supported by ABS Retail Trade, Australia data. Retail turnover data includes retail sales and online sales and does not include spending on alcohol services, such as spending in pubs and clubs. For more information, see the Data quality ABS Retail Trade, Australia.
Strong increases in liquor retailing turnover were reported in all months of 2020, when compared to 2019. Specifically, liquor spending:
- increased between March 2019 ($999.3b) to March 2020 ($1,318.7b)
- increased between the 2020 calendar year ($12,334.1b) to the 2021 calendar year ($15,625.2b) (ABS 2022).
The National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program (NWDMP) measures the presence of substances in over 58 sewerage treatment plants across Australia. Reports 11 to 18 of the program covered the period from December 2019 to August 2022 for both regional and capital city sites (ACIC 2023).
Report 17 of the NWDMP found that alcohol consumption has remained relatively stable over time (ACIC 2022c). However, the introduction of national COVID-19 restrictions in March 2020 had a notable effect on alcohol consumption with an initial slump in consumption reported in April 2020. 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 (Report 13 ACIC 2021).
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. Refer to the Data Quality section for information about these self-reported surveys.
The ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey collected information from approximately 1,000 people fortnightly throughout Australia. Wave 3 of the survey (reference period 29 April to 4 May 2020) included a question about changes in alcohol consumption in the previous 4 weeks due to COVID-19.
- 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).
Wave 7 of the survey (reference period 24 to 29 June 2020) 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 to May 2020) but excluded from analysis in Wave 7 (June 2020). However, results were broadly similar across both waves. Of those people who usually consume alcohol:
- most people reported that their alcohol consumption stayed at the same level (71.5%) compared to before March 2020
- 13.9% reported drinking more – females (15.9%) remained more likely than males (12.1%) to report increased alcohol consumption
- 14.7% reported a decreased compared to before March 2020 (ABS 2020b).
Figure COVID1: Alcohol use in May to June 2020 compared to before COVID-19
Source: AIHW, Source: AIHW, adapted from Biddle et al. 2020a, ABS 2020a and ABS 2020b.
The 34th ANUpoll (reference period 12 to 24 May 2020) collected information during the early stages of the pandemic, 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):
- 27% of respondents reported that their alcohol consumption decreased since the spread of COVID-19 in Australia
- 20% reported an increase in alcohol consumption.
Of all respondents (including those who said that they never drink alcohol):
- 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.
- 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).
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 alcohol and other drug use during COVID-19 restrictions compared to before March 2020. Preliminary findings relate to the 197 participants who completed all surveys from Waves 1 to 4.
- Wave 1 (reference period 29 April 2020 to 15 June 2020), Wave 2 (29 June 2020 to 22 September 2020) and Wave 3 (29 October 2020 to 13 January 2021) show the proportion of participants who perceived their use had increased when compared to before March 2020 was highest among those who consumed alcohol or cannabis.
- In Wave 4 (reference period 29 April 2021 to 20 July 2021), 38% of participants reported a decrease in their perceived alcohol use in the past 4 weeks. This was the highest since the study began and the first time perceived decrease was higher than those who reported an increase in consumption (Baillie et al. 2021).
The ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey (reference periods 29 April to 4 May 2020 and 24 to 29 June 2020) asked Australians aged 18 and over about personal stressors experienced in the previous 4 weeks due to COVID-19. In May 2020, 1.4% of respondents reported problems with smoking, while 1.7% reported problems with smoking in June 2020 (ABS 2020a, Table 7.1). This increased to 3.5% of respondents reporting problems with smoking in October 2020 (ABS 2020b, Table 3.1).
The January 2021 ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey (reference period 18 to 31 January 2021) asked about strategies to manage physical and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 1 March 2020, 1.2% of respondents reported quitting or reducing smoking to manage their physical health (ABS 2021, Table 4.1).
Respondents in the 34th ANUpoll (reference period 12 to 24 May 2020) were asked how often, if at all, they currently smoked tobacco. 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 (Biddle et al. 2020a).
The NWDMP measures the presence of selected illicit drugs in sewerage treatment plants across Australia. Wastewater analysis indicated initial COVID-19 restrictions did not immediately interrupt the drug markets in Australia due to existing supplies being consumed.
The NWDMP report 15 indicates COVID-19 related restrictions have not impacted drug markets uniformly, with differences across drugs and both between and within jurisdictions (ACIC 2022).
NWDMP report 17 shows most drug markets are returning to pre-COVID-19 levels. Fluctuations in consumption during the current reporting period can be explained by factors that routinely impact illicit drug markets (ACIC 2022c).
Between 2019–20 and 2020–21 the methylamphetamine and MDMA markets were most impacted. Consumption of:
- methylamphetamine decreased by 21%
- MDMA decreased by 53%
- cocaine decreased 17%; this decrease followed annual increases of cocaine consumption for the first 4 years of the Program (2016–17 to 2019–20)
- between 2019–20 and 2020–21, heroin decreased by 4%.
Report 15 of the NWDMP indicates cannabis was the only illicit drug market relatively unaffected by COVID-19 restrictions in 2020–21. The cannabis market is almost exclusively supplied via domestic production, unlike other major illicit drug markets (ACIC 2022).
Report 16 of the NWDMP covers the collection period August to December 2021, and found the illicit stimulant markets showed early signs of an increase in consumption, although still below the levels experienced prior to COVID-19. Changes in the market for illicit stimulants have been mainly caused by COVID-19 restrictions. However, changes are subject to different environmental influences (ACIC 2022b).
The ADAPT study asked Australians who had used illicit drugs at least once a month in 2019 about their alcohol and other drug use during COVID-19 restrictions compared to before March 2020. Preliminary findings relate to the 197 participants who completed all surveys from Waves 1 to 4.
- Cannabis had the highest perceived changes in consumption across Wave 1 (reference period 29 April 2020 to 15 June 2020), Wave 2 (29 June 2020 to 22 September 2020) and Wave 3 (29 October 2020 to 13 January 2021), and the third highest in Wave 4 (reference period 29 April 2021 to 20 July 2021):
- Wave 1 – 56% increased consumption; 12% decreased
- Wave 2 – 46% increased consumption; 18% decreased
- Wave 3 – 30% increased consumption and 33% decreased
- Wave 4 – 33% increased consumption and 35% decreased.
- Meth/amphetamine and ketamine were the only drugs where perceived increased consumption was consistently higher than perceived decreased consumption (Baillie et al. 2021).
Figure COVID2: Change in alcohol or illicit drug use during COVID-19 among people aged 18 and over who use illicit drugs at least monthly, by drug type (percent)