Impact 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 (DoH 2020b). This included licensed liquor outlets such as pubs and clubs.

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

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).

In May 2020, total spending on alcohol was only up to 5% higher compared to the same weekly period in 2019 (Clifton 2020b). Spending on cards in bottle shops has continued to show an increase over the same weekly period in 2019. However, this has been offset by decreases in pubs and clubs (Aird 2020; Clifton 2020a, 2020b).

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.

The 34th ANUpoll collected information from 3,219 respondents aged 18 years and over across Australia between 12–24 May 2020. Respondents were asked several specific questions related to changes in alcohol consumption during COVID-19 and also 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.
  • 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).

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.
  • 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.
  • Prescription of 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).

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).

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).

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.

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 22 May 2020. Viewed 3 June 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.

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