Could prioritising alcohol harm prevention and support establish positive lockdown legacy, asks Drinkaware?
By Annabelle Bonus, Director of Evidence and Impact, Drinkaware
From the start of lockdown, when it was reported that alcohol sales had jumped 22% and supermarket shelves were being left bare, Drinkaware expressed concern for people for whom alcohol is – or could be – an issue. Not only drinkers, but also those impacted by someone else’s drinking, such as the children of alcohol-dependent parents or victims of abuse where alcohol is involved.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated emotions, including needing to connect, boredom, isolation, loneliness, anxiety and possibly even grief1. We know that many people drink alcohol as a way of coping2, but the reality is that the past number of months has led to some of us to drink a bit more than we usually would, or on occasions and at times we usually wouldn’t. And some people will be drinking much more than usual – or even drinking again after a period of sobriety.
Drinkaware’s own research, released in August3, revealed that the effect of the pandemic could have a lasting impact on drinking levels for many people. The study found around two in five (38%) of people on furlough, a third (33%) of parents with at least one child and three in ten young adults aged 18 to 34 (29%) are drinking more alcohol since the start of lockdown. This is substantially higher than the national average where, overall, more than a fifth (22%) of people in the UK – around 11.7 million – are drinking more since the lockdown began.
We also found signs that worrying habits were forming. Those who are drinking more are also more likely to drink on more days than usual, have their first alcoholic drink earlier in the day, find it difficult to stop at one drink and drink to cope with the day.
Research from the charity Action on Addiction4 echoed ours. They found a quarter of UK adults admitted to drinking more than before lockdown. Of those drinking more, 15% said they were experiencing physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms as well as problems relating to relationships, work, money or sleep. Furthermore, the British Liver Trust5 saw an increase in calls to its helpline during lockdown, both from people with pre-existing alcohol-related liver disease and also those who are worried that lockdown has changed their alcohol habits. One in five people drink in a way that could harm their liver; the charity warns the UK could face an ‘epidemic of liver disease’.
So where does it leave us?
The Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) put it plainly in its stark warning published in the BMJ6, suggesting that in a post-Covid world, we could be facing a ‘toll of increased alcohol harm for a generation’. Authors of the article identify two groups at particular risk – those already struggling with alcohol dependence and those on the brink of it.
Of course, many people have used lockdown to drink less or cut out alcohol completely. This shift towards healthier habits is good news and one that Drinkaware will continue to encourage.
But it is crucial that we continue to monitor trends in alcohol consumption and identify those individuals who need support. Health harms from drinking alcohol are serious. There is a spectrum of short- and long-term health conditions, as well as social consequences, that occur as a result of drinking.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the impact of lockdown on alcohol misuse is far-reaching. Yet it could be possible for the nation to emerge with a positive legacy if alcohol is prioritised as a factor when the government is looking at health harm prevention, including obesity and mental health strategies, and alcohol services are protected.
There are significant numbers of people that need, or will need, support – from friends, families, colleagues, employers, public health and government – to ensure the AHA’s warning does not become a reality.
Drinkaware will be publishing its annual monitor on drinking behaviours, attitudes and experiences later in 2020.