This special feature provides state of the art analysis about alcohol and COVID-19 and explores how the pandemic has affected alcohol use and harm around the world.

Alcohol has been fueling the coronavirus pandemic on individual and societal levels. Alcohol is a risk factor for spreading infection and increasing risks of complications while also causing other medical and social problems that burden healthcare and other services. 

Physiological impacts of alcohol weaken immune system functioning and affect a range of organs, thereby increasing the risk of viral infection, severity, recovery and long-term consequences. 

Alcohol-centric social contexts have played a crucial role in ‘super-spreader’ events, amplifying the coronavirus outbreak early, and later driving the resurgence after initial control.

Alcohol use has played a crucial role in the transmission and propagation of the coronavirus pandemic with major social and economic implications.

Now, research from around the world details the lethal interaction between alcohol and COVID-19 and shows how the pandemic has affected alcohol use and harm.

Alcohol use among heavy users largely increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two new reports from England have modeled various scenarios on how this increase could lead to a rise in alcohol harm in terms of increased disease cases, hospitalizations, premature deaths, and the costs to the National Health Service (NHS). The changes in alcohol consumption during the COVID pandemic are estimated to have a significant impact on alcohol-related harm in England for many years to come.

In Australia, it was people who experienced psychological distress and specific impacts of COVID-19 restrictions that were more likely to increase their alcohol use.

Canadian alcohol policy during COVID-19 combined a continued, convenient and affordable off-premise supply of alcohol with heavy restrictions for on-premise consumption. 

The net result was an overall increase in consumption which placed upward pressure on rates of new infections, and hence demand for health-care, despite the restrictions placed on bars and restaurants. 

  • It follows that policies to reduce population consumption of alcohol would probably have strengthened the public health response to containing the COVID-19 pandemic, i.e. by placing price and availability restrictions on off-premise as well as on-premise sales. 
  • Such policies should also be considered during the recovery period rather than perpetuating the new relaxed alcohol policies. 
    • Examples of such policies include minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol and increased alcohol taxes. 
    • There are now many examples of Canadian governments making the relaxed alcohol policies introduced during the pandemic permanent.

If the increase in alcohol consumption observed in the United States in the first year of the pandemic continues, alcohol-related mortality, morbidity, and associated costs will increase substantially over the next 5 years.

In the African region, prior to the pandemic, at-home alcohol use only made up barely one-third of alcohol sales. Since the coronavirus outbreak Big Alcohol’s heavy pandemic centric marketing, and their aggressive push for online alcohol sale and delivery have turned more people on the continent into at-home alcohol users. 

Different communities and demographics have been more affected by alcohol harm during the pandemic, for instance first responders, women and girls, and people that experienced psychological distress and specific impacts of COVID-19 restrictions. The alcohol industry has exploited the vulnerability of these communities and people by targeted, pandemic centric marketing to sell alcohol as “coping tool”.