Fears of a wave of alcohol-related health problems if lessons from lockdown drinking behaviour not learned

Fears of a wave of alcohol-related health problems if lessons from lockdown drinking behaviour not learned

Alcohol education charity, Drinkaware, today (Monday, November 2) publishes its annual report into UK drinking behaviours, revealing substantial patterns in the nation’s drinking over the lockdown period, including alarming increases in drinking.

Drinkaware’s Monitor 2020 shows that more than a quarter of adult drinkers (26%) drank more alcohol during early lockdown*. And while many people began to reduce their drinking, one in 10 drinkers – the equivalent of 4.6 million – drank more than their normal throughout the overall lockdown period**, even as restrictions eased.

Job insecurity and negative mental health were major factors associated with people drinking more alcohol throughout the lockdown months (see below).

As restrictions tighten once again in different parts of the country and lives continue to be disrupted, Drinkaware fears a wave of alcohol-related health problems.

The charity is calling on the government and UK employers to urgently consider the pandemic’s effect on drinking behaviours and immediately prioritise the impact of alcohol harm. This includes alcohol consumption being looked at as a factor within mental health strategies and for employers to include alcohol consumption in their wellbeing programmes and policies.

The YouGov study of 9,046 UK adults, found that those categorised as ‘higher risk drinkers’ – representing nearly eight million UK adults – are most likely to have drunk more than normal (24%) throughout the lockdown period, compared with other categories of drinker. This group were also more likely to be drinking on more days a week than usual (37% compared with 19% of all drinkers) and to drink earlier in the day than usual (22% compared with 9% of all drinkers).

Drinkaware Chief Executive, Elaine Hindal, said:

“Our Monitor shows that when people are feeling fragile – whether they’re uncertain about their futures or struggling with working at home – they could be reaching for a drink. And while some people adapt, many might not be getting to grips with the so-called ‘new normal’, continuing to drink more than they usually would.

“Drinking can cause mental health conditions or make them worse, negatively affect your sleep, lead to weight gain, and has the potential to impair your immune function. It can also have many other serious long-term mental and physical health consequences.

“As a nation we must wake up to the health impact of drinking so much alcohol. The evidence clearly links drinking more to job insecurity and negative mental health. If general uncertainty lies ahead, it is crucial that we do not sleepwalk into the winter months and ignore these lockdown lessons. Otherwise, the UK could face a huge wave of alcohol-related health issues.”

The extensive study finds the most common reasons people gave for drinking more were having more time available and less structure to their day or week. This includes:

  • Having more time available or not being occupied with other activities (52%)
  • Having less structure to their day or week (50%)
  • To help with stress or anxiety (37%)
  • Drinking more to relieve boredom or for something to do (36%)

Particular circumstances that are associated with drinking more include:

Job uncertainty
  • Those who have been made redundant or are in consultancy are more likely to have drunk more than normal throughout lockdown than those who are not affected (17% compared with 10%).
  • Employees who are concerned about their job security are more likely to have drunk more throughout lockdown than those who are not concerned (15% compared with 11%).
Mental health
  • Those who feel the pandemic has had a large or moderate negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing are more likely than those who have experienced a small or no impact to drink more than normal throughout lockdown (14% compared with 8%).
Eating and smoking habits
  • Those who have eaten less healthily are more likely to have drunk more than normal throughout lockdown (16%) and almost one in six (16%) of those who had gained weight drank more than normal throughout lockdown.
  • Among those drinkers who smoke, more than one in five (21%) of those who smoked more compared to normally also drank more alcohol throughout lockdown.
Working from home

Fourteen percent of those working from home during lockdown, when they hadn’t been previously, drank more alcohol throughout lockdown, compared with 11% of those who didn’t change their work location.

Elaine Hindal adds:

“It is crucial that the impact of increased alcohol consumption, particularly in those people who already drink heavily, is recognised as a public health priority to prevent avoidable health problems. We urge the government to use this new research to support its efforts in tackling alcohol harm, for instance, ensuring alcohol consumption is considered as an important factor in both obesity and mental health national strategies. With disruption to working life as we know it a huge concern, employers too, can play a role in supporting staff wellbeing, particularly by being more aware of how the workplace and work-related stress is associated with drinking more.”

As well as those people who increased their drinking, the report also reveals that other people drank less over the lockdown period. In the earlier months* 27% of drinkers in the UK drank less than normal. This proportion remained the same (29%) during July and August. The reasons given for drinking less were not seeing friends and family or having social occasions (61%) and not going out or going to venues (59%). A quarter of those who drank less (24%) report trying to improve their physical health generally during lockdown.

Many of those who were drinking more than normal in early lockdown and then reduced their drinking in the later months used boundary-driven moderation techniques to cut back, including taking drink-free days (64%) and avoiding drinking alcohol on a ‘school or work night’ (54%).

Drinkaware recommends all drinkers stick to the CMO’s low risk drinking guidelines of no more than 14 units a week to keep their risk of alcohol harm low. Drinkaware has an online self-assessment that can help identify whether someone should be concerned about how much they drink.

The full report can be accessed here

* March to June
** March to August

[1] 8.9% of adults aged 18-85 (10.3% of drinkers in this age group) drank more throughout lockdown. There are 51,281,704 adults aged 18-85 in the UK, which equals an estimated 4,564,072 who drank more throughout lockdown

[2] 15.3% of adults aged 18-85 are classified as higher risk drinkers according to the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test – Consumption (AUDIT-C)measure. There are 51,281,704 adults aged 18-85 in the UK, which equals an estimated7,846,101 higher risk drinkers.

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