COVID-19 pandemic restrictions had a big impact on the alcohol consumption of high risk drinkers in Victoria, a new study has found, while it also took people longer to return to pubs and clubs once restrictions eased.

In response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, many countries around the world introduced public health measures. In Australia, the nationwide lockdown, introduced by the Australian Government, began on the 30 March 2020. During lockdown, alcohol could be purchased via takeaway liquor shops and alcohol delivery services (here). By late-April 2020, lockdown restrictions started to ease gradually across the country. In early July 2020 and August 2020, the Victorian State Government reinstated strict lockdown restrictions in Melbourne and regional Victoria respectively. During this time, other Australian states and territories were not locked down but had varying restrictions on household visits, public gatherings and density limits at licensed premises (here). The lockdown in regional Victoria ended in mid-September, and in Melbourne in late-October 2020, with the re-opening of licenced premises and the easing of other restrictions (household visitor and public gathering limits). No other state or territory experienced a prolonged second lockdown in 2020. These restrictions presented an opportunity to examine how different public health and licensing restrictions affected drinking.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Australians consumed most of their alcohol at home and heavy home drinking was common (here). There were some concerns early in the pandemic that alcohol consumption would increase during lockdown (here), particularly home drinking, as this was the only place people were permitted to consume alcohol during that period. However, reviews of the literature have found mixed results on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on consumption (here and here), and these findings vary by country. In Australia, studies seem to indicate that, overall, alcohol consumption stayed the same or decreased slightly during the pandemic. However, most Australian studies come from early in the COVID-19 pandemic and use cross-sectional samples, meaning they only surveyed participants once and could not assess how drinking changed as public health measures shifted across 2020.

COVID-19's impact on our drinking habits   - Featured Image
There were concerns early in the pandemic that alcohol consumption would increase during lockdown (Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock)

Drinking habits in 2020

We conducted one of the few Australian longitudinal studies that explored consumption throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. We administered six surveys to 775 adults between April and December 2020, with three surveys completed during the second lockdown in Victoria. This allowed us to investigate if there were any differences in consumption for Victorians compared with other Australians. We also examined changes in how much alcohol was consumed in different drinking locations (in their own home, at someone else’s home, at a licensed premise and in public spaces). Lastly, we assessed if the pandemic and associated restrictions affected consumption differently across pre-pandemic drinking groups (low, moderate and high risk drinkers).

We found that, despite the differences in lockdown restrictions during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the total amount of alcohol consumed in November 2020 was similar to 2019 consumption levels in Victoria and the rest of Australia.

However, there were some changes in consumption within the different drinking locations. In Victoria, during both lockdowns, there was a reduction in consumption in someone else’s home, licensed premises, and public spaces compared with 2019 (except in October, when outdoor public gatherings were permitted in Melbourne).

Meanwhile, in the rest of Australia, there was a decrease in consumption in someone else’s home and licensed premises during the nationwide lockdown, compared with drinking practices in 2019.

Interestingly, in June, after the lockdown restrictions were eased nationwide there was a decrease in consumption in licensed premises and in public spaces compared with 2019, suggesting that perhaps people were slow to return to socialising in public places.

Lastly, we found that in November 2020, consumption in all drinking locations roughly returned back to their respective 2019 consumption levels. Therefore, our results suggest that despite experiencing a second lockdown in Victoria, any changes in consumption observed during lockdown did not remain in November 2020.

A reduction for high risk drinkers

Perhaps the most surprising finding of our study was that high risk drinkers in Victoria reported less alcohol consumption in June 2020 and during the second Victorian lockdown in July 2020 compared with 2019. Meanwhile, consumption among participants in the low and moderate risk groups remained relatively stable during the first year of the pandemic compared with 2019. These results demonstrate that high risk drinkers were affected differently by the COVID-19 restrictions compared with those in the low and moderate risk groups. Reducing availability of on-premise alcohol may be an effective way to reduce consumption in heavier drinkers.

There were a few limitations in this study due to the need to quickly recruit participants early in the COVID-19 pandemic. We recruited participants from social media; therefore, our sample was not representative of the total population. Furthermore, in the first survey, participants were asked about their 2019 consumption and their past month consumption, raising concerns about the reliability of participants’ recall. Despite these limitations, our results do provide some indication about the overall changes in consumption in different drinking locations and among drinking groups and broadly match other studies undertaken during the pandemic.

Our study’s focus on drinking location allowed us to explore if alcohol consumption changed in each location during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is important to examine as any new drinking habits that are formed during lockdown may continue beyond the pandemic.

Our results have demonstrated that drinking habits that may have emerged during lockdown in 2020 did not persist when lockdown restrictions were eased in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as our study took place in 2020, it is unclear if this was also the case in 2021, when more lockdown restrictions were introduced in Australia.

Our results also suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions had a bigger impact on consumption in high risk drinkers in Victoria than in low and moderate risk drinkers.

Ms Yvette Mojica-Perez is a PhD student and Research Officer at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research (CAPR), La Trobe University.

Dr Michael Livingston is an Associate Professor at the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University.

Dr Amy Pennay is a Senior Research Fellow at the CAPR, La Trobe University.

Dr Sarah Callinan is an Associate Professor at the CAPR, La Trobe University.

The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated. 

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