Did Australians drink more at home during COVID lockdowns?

We drank more than 100 million glasses of alcohol last week.

The Roy Morgan Alcohol Report reveals that Australians are drinking more than 400 million glasses of alcohol in an average four weeks, as we were last year. However, fewer of us are contributing to that total – the percentage of people consuming alcohol is 66.4 per cent, dropping from 73.5 per cent in 2006 and 68.2 per cent in 2015.

Roy Morgan CEO Michelle Levine said there is one cohort doing the heavy lifting.

“The majority of alcohol drinkers (66 per cent) drink lightly or moderately, but the disproportionate consumption by those classified as heavy drinkers is striking: just 34 of drinkers are responsible for 77 per cent of all alcohol consumed.”

Those who drink alcohol were classified as light, medium or heavy drinkers, based on the number of drinks they had consumed in a four-week period: 1-7 drinks for a light drinker, 8-28 for a medium drinker and 29 plus for a heavy drinker.

Contrary to common perceptions early in the pandemic, lockdowns didn’t turn us all into lushes. 

New research from Monash University has revealed Australians did not drink more at home during the nation’s COVID-19 lockdowns, despite the closure of licensed venues.

Data from the Australian Tax Office (ATO) shows the closure of pubs, clubs, restaurants, cafes and sporting venues in March had no significant impact on off-premises beer purchases.

“Restricting the availability of on-premises alcohol during the first and second waves of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia was associated with significant reductions in on-premises beer consumption, but no significant changes in off-premises beer consumption,” the report concluded.

When first wave restrictions were lifted in May, off-premises consumption remained unchanged.

“With beer representing the largest share of total alcohol consumed in Australia and disproportionately represented in risky drinking, there were widely held concerns people would increase their consumption at home, particularly with unemployment rates spiking as a direct result of the pandemic,” said lead researcher Dr Brian Vandenberg.

“While these results are different to self-reported surveys on alcohol use during COVID-19 restrictions in Australia, our analysis likely reflects changes in men’s drinking habits and potentially their preference to drink outside the home – at sporting events, the pub and with company.”

Dr Vandenberg said previous research had shown drinking decreased with budget constraints during economic crises and reduced opportunities to drink because of bans of large gatherings probably contributed to the outcome. But he described the findings as “an unexpected health benefit” from COVID-19 restrictions.

Drinking habits changed during the pandemic. Cider, consumed by 13.4 per cent of drinkers in 2017, was down to 9.2 per cent in 2020, while spirits went from 25.3 per cent to 30.8 per cent now.

After it was announced in October that the Adelaide West End brewery would be closed, Lion Australia managing director James Brindley blamed the decision on changes in consumer preferences, saying the beer market “is now at its lowest per capita consumption ever recorded in Australia”, while 700 new craft breweries are offering “intense” competition.

Meanwhile, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has upgraded draft guidelines on recommended alcohol consumption of standard drinks from 14 to 10 per week.

CEO of Alcohol Beverages Australia (ABA) Andrew Wilsmore claimed the guidelines were erroneously based on a woman who drinks three times a week.

“They have applied that to the entire Australian population regardless of whether they are drinking once a week or seven days a week,” he told Morgan 6PR Breakfast.

He insists younger Australians are drinking more responsibly than any generation before them.

National Health and Medical Research Council draft guidelines:

To reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury for healthy men and women, drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than four standard drinks on any one day. The less you choose to drink, the lower your risk of alcohol-related harm. For some people not drinking at all is the safest option.

The body of evidence that supports this recommendation now shows:

  • greater certainty about the link between alcohol consumption and the risk of developing a number of different cancers
  • increased uncertainty about any protective benefits of drinking alcohol
  • similarity in the overall risk of alcohol-related harm between women and men at low levels of alcohol consumption (for example, fewer than 10 drinks a week).

Do you monitor your alcohol intake more closely than in decades past? Have you participated in such campaigns as Dry July and Febfast?

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Written by Will Brodie

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