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The effect of COVID-19 on alcohol consumption, and policy responses to prevent harmful alcohol consumption

OECD report May 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated government measures to limit mobility impacted patterns and places of alcohol consumption. While the path to recovery remains long and difficult, this crisis also increases the risk that individuals engage in harmful drinking to cope with stress. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in domestic violence, for which harmful alcohol consumption is a risk factor.

Harmful alcohol consumption damages health, causes diseases and injuries, weakens response to COVID-19, and leads to significant economic and societal costs. Comprehensive policy packages built on a PPPP approach including Pricing policies, Policing to counter drink-driving, Primary care-based counselling for heavy drinkers, and regulating alcohol Promotion activities, improve health, and support a stronger economic and social recovery in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Key findings:

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have significantly changed drinking habits, shifting places of consumption from bars and restaurants to home. For many people, alcohol is part of their social life, a life that has been significantly disrupted by COVID-19. Overall, most people did not change how much they drank but, among those who did, a larger proportion of people drank more. Looking at preliminary government tax receipt data, alcohol sales increased by 3% to 5% in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States in 2020 compared to 2019. Sales of alcohol in bars and restaurants plummeted, severely affecting this sector, while off-premise sales, such as e-commerce and retail stores, grew significantly. For example, in the United States, online sales increased by up to 234%.

Some of the problems associated with harmful alcohol consumption were intensified by the crisis, even though the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on alcohol consumption are uncertain. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, women, parents of young children, people with higher income and those with anxiety and depressive symptoms reported the highest increase in alcohol consumption, for instance in Australia, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Emergency calls about domestic violence, for which harmful alcohol consumption is a risk factor, rose by 60% in EU countries. There is also a risk that COVID-19 causes an increase in problematic drinking in the medium-term, given that excessive alcohol consumption is common after traumatic events as a response to high stress levels.

Harmful alcohol consumption takes a heavy toll on people, the economy and the society. Over the next 30 years and on average across OECD countries, diseases and injuries caused by drinking more than 1 drink per day for women and 1.5 drinks per day for men – corresponding to lower-risk thresholds specifically used for the simulation – will cause life expectancy to be 0.9 years shorter than it otherwise would be; they will be also responsible for about 2.4% of total health expenditure; while GDP will be 1.6% lower than otherwise due to reduced workforce participation and productivity.

Governments have at their disposal a battery of policy interventions to tackle harmful alcohol consumption and prevent related diseases. A policy package based on a “PPPP” approach including Policing to counter drink-driving, strengthening Primary care-based counselling for heavy drinkers, regulation on Promotion, including a ban on alcohol advertising to children, and Pricing policies particularly to target cheap alcohol has the potential to prevent diseases and injuries, increase life expectancy and generate savings that are greater than the implementation costs.

Preventing alcohol-related diseases and injuries has a triple dividend. First, reducing alcohol use helps individuals cope with infections and develop immunity after vaccination. Second, preventing alcohol use and its associated diseases reduces pressure on healthcare services – which are already under heavy strain by COVID-19. Third, with prevention of harmful alcohol consumption, a healthier and more productive population will better help restart economic activities and social life in the aftermath of the pandemic. Investing in protecting children and people with problematic drinking is particularly important during the pandemic. Primary care-based counselling for heavy drinkers, regulation on advertising or promoting alcoholic beverages on TV, the Internet and social media targeting children, and minimum unit price policies targeting cheap alcohol, are particularly well suited to address some of the priority areas in alcohol policy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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