Australia: COVID-19 Changes Alcohol Habit, Norm
The COVID-19 lockdown in Australia poses a set of challenges for the country including changes to people’s alcohol habit and the overall alcohol norm prevailing in society. Urgent action is needed by the government to ensure alcohol harm is tackled before it can rise during lockdown and years to come.
COVID-19 has increased stress and anxiety for people around the world. This is true for Australians as well. People are anxious about the future, about their loved ones and about job security. There are added stressors of being in isolation with older parents or young children, pay cuts and job loss. Routines have completely changed for everyone and the normal activities for relaxation are not available for many. People also face increased loneliness and boredom due to isolation.
Stress, anxiety and mass trauma can affect alcohol consumption according to scientific evidence. The Alcohol and Drug Foundation states, experiences of mass trauma like terrorism, mass shootings, natural disasters and economic crises increase alcohol use and abuse.
Personal stressors such as financial hardship, death of a loved one or relationship strains can also drive increased alcohol consumption. 40% of Australians report using alcohol as a way to cope with stress.
These findings are especially concerning because the current COVID-19 pandemic involves mass trauma and individual stressors and anxiety.
Australians already face a significant alcohol burden. In the ‘Australia Talks About Alcohol’ survey by ABC done last year, 90% of the respondents believed alcohol and other drug issues are some of the major problems in the country.
There is now concern that unhealthy coping with the current crisis by using alcohol would lead to a new wave of alcohol harm lasting for years after the pandemic.
Increasing alcohol sales during lockdown
Recent data are already finding an unhealthy trend of increasing alcohol sales in Australia.
A recent poll conducted by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) from April 3 to 5, 2020 found, 20% of households reported buying more alcohol than usual since COVID-19.
Among these households,
- 70% of Australians were consuming more alcohol than before the pandemic,
- 32% were concerned about the amount of alcohol they or a loved one was consuming,
- 28% people are consuming more alcohol than they planned,
- 34% are consuming alcohol daily,
- 20% are consuming alcohol earlier in the day, and
- 28% are consuming alcohol on their own more than before.
It is clear that alcohol consumption behavior is changing and the alcohol norm might also be changing, leading to a further normalization of alcohol.
The data from FARE are underpinned by sales data:
- Online stockbroking firm Commsec reported spending at liquor stores was up 86% comparative to the same time in 2019, and
- Australians spent 34% more on alcohol in March 2020 than during the same time period last year.
Adding to the growing alcohol harm during COVID-19 in Australia are myths and Big Alcohol marketing. An initial myth that surfaced was that alcohol kills the novel corona virus. The World Health Organization has addressed this myth since then and Movendi International debunked the myth and shared facts on alcohol and COVID-19 in a blog article.
Meanwhile, Big Alcohol has been promoting unethical marketing in Australia, mainly on social media. These advertisements included, ‘alcohol survival kits’ and isolation linked six packs. Public health experts have called out the alcohol industry on this type of marketing. Unfortunately the industry advertising self-regulation body “Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC)” has been constantly failing to control harmful marketing in the country for years.
Reducing alcohol harm during COVID-19
Individually, people can find healthy ways of coping with current stressors and anxiety, including meditation, mindfulness and getting in touch with loved ones virtually. The WHO has provided some useful mental health and psycho-social guidelines.
Movendi International provides the physical distancing coping kit which has four concrete measures to cope (and thrive) in times of quarantine, self-isolation and physical distancing.
There are also virtual tools and help available for those who want to stay sober during the pandemic including those who are in recovery and want to maintain their progress. Connection is key to recovery and while physical distancing puts a stop to this online platforms have emerged to fill this gap.
While Australians can adjust individually to the current epidemic, the government must step up to prevent and reduce alcohol harms such as the above mentioned harmful marketing strategies of the alcohol industry.
Governments in Australia should regulate and restrict the availability of alcohol to protect the community. Restrictions on hours of sale and outlet density can reduce availability effectively. The government of Western Australia currently has put in place some restrictions on alcohol purchasing. These include restrictions on public alcohol use, limited hours of sale and restrictions on take away alcohol.
The government of the Northern Territory currently has implemented a minimum unit price policy (MUP) which reduces affordability of alcohol and alcohol consumption.
The WHO recommends scientific and cost-effective best buy alcohol policy solutions.
Just as our hospitals need clear contingency plans to manage COVID-19, our public health sector needs to prepare adequately for the potential COVID-19 related alcohol harms that may result,” write Professor Rob Moodie and Dr Tasmyn Soller, University of Melbourne, as per Pursuit.