British Columbians’ alcohol consumption has spiked during the pandemic, particularly during the spring lockdown, and UVic researchers are tracking to see whether the same will happen in the second wave.
Researchers from the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR) analyzed B.C. alcohol sales data and found a significant rise in alcohol purchased from private liquor stores. Private liquor stores saw per capita consumption rise 18.5 per cent between March and July compared to the same time period in 2019. At B.C. Liquor stores, consumption rose by about eight per cent.
Tim Stockwell, a scientist with the institute who led the study, said in March, many private liquor stores began offering home delivery, which made getting alcohol as easy as a few clicks on a smart phone. Most private liquor stores required a minimum purchase for delivery, whereas government stores did not offer a delivery service.
The spike in alcohol sales was particularly high immediately after the March 17 lockdown, when Stockwell noted a 40 per cent jump in sales the week after lockdown measures were announced.
In 2019, about half of all alcohol consumed in B.C. was purchased at a private liquor store. Drinks consumed in bars and restaurants historically make up around 15 per cent of alcohol consumed in B.C. Liquor sales were non-existent when bars and restaurants were closed in April and May but sales rebounded to about half of 2019 levels when they reopened in June and July. However, Stockwell noted that the rise in at-home booze consumption was much greater than the drop-off seen in licensed establishments.
The next phase of the team’s research includes analyzing whether alcohol sales have any impact on the rates of COVID-19 infection three or four weeks later.
“We suspect there’s likely to be a close relationship between the sale of alcohol and the spread of COVID-19. People are taking fewer precautions, less social distancing, not wearing masks,” Stockwell said.
“It’s become clear that alcohol and COVID are a pretty lethal combination, with each fuelling the other,” the institute’s new director Tim Naimi said in a statement.
In addition to the negative health impacts, such as increased risk of acute respiratory distress, heavy drinking at home can also increase the risk of domestic violence and child neglect, Stockwell said.
In order to prevent increased alcohol consumption from further taxing the health-care system, Stockwell is advocating for a cap on the amount of alcohol that can be purchased in a day. Similar measures were put in place in Western Australia to prevent panic buying and stop binge drinking. Stockwell would also like to see private liquor stores remove the minimum purchase requirement and instead institute a delivery fee. He also said the B.C. government should increase the minimum price per standard drink sold in liquor stores to at least $1.5o per drink. Such minimum alcohol pricing was introduced in Scotland in 2018 and Stockwell said research has shown the measures have reduced alcohol consumption and alcohol-related deaths compared to Northern England which does not have minimum pricing rules.
The study analyzed sales data from the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch, which sells alcohol to private and government liquor stores, bars and restaurants and population data from BC Stats to estimate per-capita consumption. Stockwell said his team is working with the Public Health Agency of Canada in order to analyze similar alcohol consumption data across the country.