November 3, 2021

Alcohol harm and COVID-19

Drinking wine on the couch

Since the arrival of COVID-19 there’s been speculation that drinking would increase – and with it, increased alcohol-related harms.

So, what’s the real impact? And where do we go from here?

Let’s delve into some of the latest findings around alcohol use and associated harms since the pandemic began in early 2020.

Some young people are drinking less

Since the beginning of COVID-19, alcohol consumption among young people has actually dropped by 17%.1

But, this decrease was among young people who were heavy drinkers, with no significant change observed in moderate to light drinkers.1

Other interesting findings were:1

  • Young people typically drink more outside of the home – during lockdowns, however, young people spent a lot less time socialising (and drinking) with friends outside of the home.
  • Overall declines in drinking – young people have been drinking less across different occasions, including social drinks where they might normally have ‘a few’, or occasions where they might have many in one sitting (also known as binge drinking).
  • Virtual hang-outs means less harms than usual – virtual drinking became a way for young people to connect but without the risk of drink-driving, physical fights and other alcohol-related injuries.
  • No difference in alcohol consumption between young men and women – although some research found women were drinking more than men during the pandemic – this was not the case with young people.

It should be noted that most of the young people in this study were not from Victoria – the state hit hardest by lengthy lockdowns and restrictions – so it may be some time before we have the complete picture.

Young people’s mental health impacted

COVID-19 also had a negative impact on young people’s mental health – particularly depression and anxiety.2

There are a number of reasons for this, including:

  • social isolation – not being able to engage with friends socially, or through structured activities such as study, sports and training programs
  • low engagement with mental health services – young people don’t tend to seek help for anxiety/depression as much as older people
  • disproportionate work-related stress – majority of young people work in non-contract, casual capacities such as hospitality and retail, which have been significantly impacted by the pandemic.2 The lack of financial security caused additional stress and anxiety.

Young women reported a greater decline in mental health than young men.2

Although young people aren’t seeking support from mental health services for increased anxiety and depression, they are applying self-help strategies, such as staying connected to friends and family or getting regular exercise.2

Increased drinking in the general population

Overall, Australians bought – and drank - more alcohol during the pandemic.3-5

Some of this increase relates to panic buying at the start of the pandemic, with people buying more alcohol and potentially stockpiling it, rather than actually drinking more than usual.5

A national poll by Foundation for Alcohol Research and Evaluation (FARE) found around 20% of households reported buying more alcohol than usual since the start of the pandemic.4

It also found 14% of households were drinking daily - a three-fold increase compared to a January 2020 survey.4

Another survey of 3,219 Australian adults found among people who drink,1 in 5 reported drinking more during the pandemic, with women more likely to have upped their drinking than men (around 18% vs around 16%).3

This increase is concerning, particularly because we don’t know what our ‘new normal’ might actually look like.

Increase in ambulance call-outs

During the pandemic, in 2020, alcohol-related ambulance attendance rates in Victoria jumped by 9%.6

While lower socioeconomic areas recorded the most alcohol-related ambulance call-outs, the greatest increase in attendances actually occurred in the highest socioeconomic areas.6

The most alcohol-related harms were seen among people who were heavy drinkers.1, 6

This group may also have a greater vulnerability to COVID since they often have compromised respiratory and immune systems, due to their higher alcohol consumption.

Reaching out, for you or someone else

We’re seeing an increase in alcohol consumption and mental health issues and much of the blame sits firmly with COVID-19.

Currently, these additional harms are adding to the already overwhelming demand on our health system caused by the virus itself.

But, the fact is, we still don’t know what longer term impacts the pandemic may have on our physical and mental health.

It’s now more important than ever to check in on each other and reach out for help.

If you, or someone you know, is concerned about their alcohol and other drug use, you can access some of the services below for support.

  • DrugInfo – free and confidential information on alcohol and other drugs.
  • Path2Help – an online app that helps you find local support and information, tailored to your specific needs.
  • Headspace – national organisation focussed on youth mental health.
  • Yarning Safe’n’Strong – 24/7 phoneline for free and confidential counselling for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
  • National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline free and confidential advice about alcohol and other drugs.
  1. Clare PJ, Aiken A, Yuen WS, Upton E, Kypri K, Degenhardt L, et al. Alcohol use among young Australian adults in May‐June 2020 during the COVID‐19 pandemic: a prospective cohort study. Addiction [Internet]. 2021 28.09.2021].
  2. Upton E, Clare PJ, Aiken A, Boland VC, De Torres C, Bruno R, et al. Changes in mental health and help-seeking among young Australian adults during the COVID-19 pandemic: a prospective cohort study. Psychological medicine [Internet]. 2021 28.09.2021]:[1-9 pp.].
  3. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Alcohol, tobacco & other drugs in Australia Canberra: AIHW; 2021 [30.09.2021].
  4. Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. Alcohol Use and Harm During COVID-19 ACT2020 [30.09.2021].
  5. Roy Morgan. Number of Australians drinking wine, spirits and RTDs up significantly in 2021 while beer drinking holds steady 2021 [30.09.2021].
  6. Ogeil RP, Scott D, Faulkner A, Wilson J, Beard N, Smith K, et al. Changes in alcohol intoxication-related ambulance attendances during COVID-19: How have government announcements and policies affected ambulance call outs?The Lancet Regional Health-Western Pacific [Internet]. 2021 28.09.2021]; 14:[100222 p.].

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