The products and practices of the alcohol industry drove a rise in alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia. This has led more Australians to develop alcohol use problems. As a result demand for alcohol and other drug support services has soared in recent years. Support services cannot keep up with the current demand. Concerns rise that demand will increase even more in the future.
It is crucial that the Australian government prioritizes alcohol policy solutions to prevent and reduce the rising alcohol harms.

Good health and well-being have become even more important to us all during the COVID-19 pandemic. But alcohol harms stand in the way of many Australians enjoying good health and well-being.

The alcohol industry exploited the pandemic to market alcohol even more and push people to use more alcohol. A report released last year by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education found that people in Australia were exposed to an alcohol advertisement every 35 seconds on Facebook and Instagram during the pandemic.

As a result of this heavy pandemic marketing, alcohol use soared in Australia. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that,

  • Australian alcohol retailers turned over $15.6 billion in sales in 2020.
  • Alcohol retail sales grew only $195 million between 2018 and 2019 but soared by 27% between 2019 and 2020, growing by $3.3 billion more.

This rise in alcohol use led to increased alcohol problems. A new report by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) titled “Alcohol use and harms during the COVID-19 pandemic” monitored emerging evidence in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic (2020-21).

Key results from the report include the following:

  • Australians made over 25,000 calls to the National Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) Hotline – triple the numbers seen pre-pandemic in 2019.
  • Many of these people are calling due to an alcohol problem.
    • Alcohol use accounts for a third of all AOD treatment in Australia.
  • High levels of stress and anxiety, as well as boredom and isolation, are identified as key drivers of high-risk alcohol use during the pandemic.
  • Childcare pressures and employment instability were drivers of increased alcohol use.
  • Alcohol-related deaths increased during the pandemic.
  • There is a soaring demand for support services.
Calls made by Australians to the National Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) Hotline
Australians made over 25,000 calls to the National Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) Hotline. This is triple the numbers seen pre-pandemic in 2019.

Mr. Luke Hutchins, Policy and Research Director at FARE says that the data raise concerns over the deteriorating health and wellbeing of Australians. The psychological impact of the pandemic including heightened stress, anxiety, and depression has led to people using more alcohol and developing alcohol use problems.

Professor Dan Lubman AM, Executive Clinical Director of Australia’s leading addiction treatment, research, and education centre Turning Point says that the rising demand for alcohol and other drug services is just the tip of the iceberg.

Professor Lubman points out that while treatment services are doing the best they can with limited resources there are about half a million Australians in need of addiction help who can’t receive it.

As a result of COVID-19 restrictions, availability of detox beds has reduced. Waiting lists for assessment, counseling, and rehabilitation continue to increase. More people using alcohol and thus developing problems in the future will be an issue since services can’t keep up with the current demand.

We are seeing an increase in the number and severity and presentations, but we know this is the tip of the iceberg. The increased use of alcohol we have seen since the pandemic began is further compounded by the impact of natural disasters, such as the recent fires and floods, as well concerns related to cost of living pressures and financial insecurity,” said Professor Dan Lubman AM, Executive Clinical Director of Turning Point, as per FARE.

More people [using] more [alcohol] often means more people needing treatment and support down the line. It’s concerning because we can’t even keep up with those who need treatment right now.”

Professor Dan Lubman AM, Executive Clinical Director of Turning Point

Prevention is better than cure

Since treatment services are already under a heavy burden it is crucial that the Australian government prevents further increases in alcohol use through effective alcohol policy measures.

Two aspects that the government can improve on include:

  1. Improving the rules around the currently largely unregulated alcohol marketing, and
  2. Limiting late night and rapid online alcohol delivery.

Currently, alcohol marketing is self-regulated by the alcohol industry in Australia. This self-regulation has been failing as evident by the heavy pandemic marketing during COVID-19. It is necessary to have independent alcohol marketing regulations to properly protect people, especially children and youth, against the constant bombarding of alcohol promotions.

Alcohol on-demand delivery has grown rapidly in Australia specifically during the pandemic. This increase in easy availability is partly responsible for the spike in alcohol use during COVID-19.  

FARE’s 2020 Annual Alcohol Poll found the majority (70%) of people receiving a rapid alcohol delivery (within 2 hours) consumed alcohol at high-risk levels, including 38% who had more than 10 standard alcoholic beverages on the day of delivery. 

Furthermore, current alcohol delivery rules are still putting children and vulnerable adults in harm’s way.

  • One report by FARE found that none of the major online alcohol retailers reviewed in their study used point-of-sale age verification to confirm the age of the recipient. 
  • Even if delivery drivers are trained in responsible service of alcohol (RSA), it would be extremely difficult to identify an intoxicated person in the brief moment of delivery.

The increased harm posed by alcohol delivery services requires more attention from Australian policymakers. More protections for the community are needed in this area of alcohol availability.

Source Website: FARE