Drinking during COVID-19

Changes to our drinking habits could be a surprising “good news story” with the COVID-19 lockdown providing a catalyst for positive behaviour change, a new study has found.

COVID-19 has changed our alcohol purchasing and consumption patterns in individual and unexpected ways, demonstrating resilience and a focus on self-care, according to a new UNSW study.

The study, Distilling our changing relationship with alcohol during COVID-19, looks at how the pandemic has affected alcohol consumption and purchasing in NSW before, during and after the NSW lockdown. Supported by the UNSW COVID Rapid Release Research Fund, the study also examines the extent to which these changes have been sustained post-lockdown.

“The lockdown resulting from COVID-19 has changed people’s drinking patterns in unexpected ways. What we have found is largely a good news story, although unfortunately not for all groups,” says Professor Alison Ritter AO, Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at UNSW’s Social Policy Research Centre.

“There is not one story here. As such our findings suggest that future policy to curb problematic drinking should take a more targeted and nuanced approach towards different groups as a one-size approach to policy does not fit all.”

Majority report no change or decreased consumption

Two in three people surveyed reported no change or a decrease in their alcohol consumption during the pandemic. Additionally, participants who reported having an average of 20 standard drinks per week pre-lockdown were the most likely to reduce consumption, the study found.

“This level of drinking is above the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines for low-risk drinking,” Prof. Ritter says. “So a reduction in consumption for this group in particular points to an increase in resilience and agency with respondents recognising this time as an opportunity for looking after themselves.”

Young people more likely to reduce their drinking

The closure of licenced venues diversely affected different age cohorts, with younger people, especially Generation Z (18-24-year-olds), reporting a significant decrease in alcohol consumption.

“I’d say I just pretty much completely stopped drinking, because I only usually drink on special occasions or social settings. I pretty much didn’t drink at all,” a 23-year-old female respondent said.

Licensed venues are places for socialising, Prof. Ritter says. “In their absence, young people reduced their alcohol consumption.

“People older than this, across all three older generations – Millennials, Gen X and Boomers – however, did not.”

While the majority of the older generations also drank in licensed venues before lockdown, one third increased their drinking at a time when these usual places of consumption were no longer available, the survey found.

“Our findings point to the need to focus policy measures on older populations to decrease their alcohol consumption.”

Concern around women’s increased alcohol consumption uncalled for

There has been some public concern that women are drinking more during the pandemic, Prof. Ritter says. However women were not more likely to increase their consumption compared to men, according to the study.

“Statistically women drink less than men (both before and during lockdown) but it seems we worry more about women’s drinking,” Prof. Ritter says. “This study has shown that both men and women were equally likely to decrease their consumption in lockdown or equally likely to increase their consumption.”

An increase in online purchasing didn’t equate to increased consumption overall

While ‘on-premise’ alcohol availability all but ceased during lockdown, ‘off-premise’ availability increased, with a statistically significant increase in purchasing from online alcohol delivery services, the study found. However, this did not align with an increase in alcohol consumption.

“While we saw an increase in online purchasing of alcohol across the full sample, at lockdown this was not associated with increased consumption,” Prof. Ritter says. “In fact, it was the group that did not change their alcohol consumption who had the highest proportion of people purchasing alcohol online before the lockdown.”

No significant increase in consumption motivated by managing negative feelings

People drink for a number of reasons, including for social reasons or because they are feeling depressed or anxious, Prof. Ritter says. The study of drinking during COVID-19 found there was no significant increase in consumption based on managing negative feelings.

You can read the full report here.

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