The COVID-19 pandemic made 2020 a catastrophic year, in many aspects. Previous research data on alcohol consumption in crises such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks show that the trauma leads to higher alcohol consumption. COVID-19 has been a prolonged crisis unprecedented in recent history and the trauma is also ongoing. This would mean alcohol consumption would likely increase in 2020 and beyond, but for the most part of the year bars, restaurants and pubs have been closed. Even once they re-opened there have been restrictions. As a drop in alcohol availability generally leads to reduced alcohol consumption this would mean alcohol use could likely decrease in 2020. Two possible trends, but which one is really taking place?
Data coming from the United Kingdom on alcohol consumption in 2020 have been mixed so far. As a recent Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) briefing showed, there has been a rise in the proportion of people going alcohol-free as well as in heavy alcohol users. Similar proportions of people are consuming more alcohol as well as less alcohol than before the pandemic. Another study recently published in the journal Addiction by Jackson and colleagues reinforced the polarization in alcohol consumption in the UK.
What does the data say?
According to the alcohol industry alcohol sales for beer and wine had fallen in 2020. The annual market report by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) which will be released soon report a 10% decrease in beer sales and 5% decrease in wine sales.
According to Colin Angus the following conclusions can be drawn from data obtained so far:
- Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) state that they collected £313m more in alcohol duty in April-October 2020 than in the same period in 2019, an increase of 4.5%. But this is not adjusted for confounders such as inflation and other factors such as weather, major sporting events etc. which affect alcohol sales.
- When inflation is controlled for taking an average of 2015 – 2019 data and comparing to 2020 it shows the alcohol duty decreased slightly by under 1% in 2020.
- Duty receipts of HMRC show the alcohol duty decreased between March and April and increased between June to August. The reason is that duty payments were deferred due to financial pressures of lockdown, according to HMRC. Therefore, the June to August duty receipts apply to alcohol sold a few months prior than the usual one month.
- HMRC data on alcohol cleared for sales indicate a slight decrease in March which was more than offset by sales in July until September. The increase in alcohol sales for 2020 can be estimated at slightly less than 3.4%.
- Data suggest a shift from beer to liquor in type of alcohol consumed.
Finally, Colin Angus concludes as follows:
…it’s important to remember that HMRC data reflects the total revenue and alcohol clearances across the whole population. Whether the small increase in overall alcohol sales reflects a small increase across the whole population, or a large increase in a small number of heavy [alcohol users], will have a large bearing on what the longer term alcohol-related health impacts of these changes are, and that’s something that we won’t start to find out for some time yet.”Colin Angus, Senior Research Fellow, University of Sheffield
[This article was edited on January 19th 2021 as per new information from the Independent]