Alcohol and COVID-19

May 21, 2020

The lockdown period was an interesting and challenging time in different ways.  And now we can take time to think about decisions that were made around the provision of alcohol, and what that then tells us about New Zealand’s relationship with alcohol.   Below, we reflect on three recently released findings from health experts.

Alcohol as an ‘essential product’ during lockdown

New Zealand’s alert level 4 gives us some insights into what was considered by the government as an essential item, and what was not.   Professor Sally Caswell pointed out in her recent commentary that despite the fact that alcohol consumption can make COVID-19 symptoms worse, alcohol was sold as a permitted item during alert level 4.      Even though alcohol and beer continued to be available for sale through supermarkets, access to spirits and ready-to-drink premixed alcohol beverages were also permitted to be sold online during lockdown. Rules changed from permitting online only businesses, then extended to other businesses.  Ms Caswell points out that this increased potential availability to from around 250 online only businesses, to around 1000 physical bottle shops.  The other factor was that social media was consistently used to promote the online sale of alcohol.

Does this permission to sell alcohol during alert level 4, over other products which were deemed non-essential, help to further promote alcohol as an ordinary commodity?  As Professor Caswell suggests, are commercial interests being favoured over public health?   She notes that alcohol is anything but an ordinary commodity as almost half of alcohol is consumed as heavy and binge drinking.    Several agencies and community leaders were also concerned not only about these online sales, but what this message then promotes about our attitude towards alcohol in New Zealand.   Alcohol Healthwatch was one of many agencies and individuals which assisted in promoting David (Rāwiri) Ratu’s petition before parliament to stop the online sales of alcohol during COVID-19 lockdown. 

Check out Sally Caswell’s informative article here.

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The link between alcohol and cancer

Sally Caswell is not the only expert in this field who is actively working to promote the fact that alcohol is a risk factor not only for COVID-19, but many other conditions, including cancer.   Professor Doug Sellman, spokesman for Alcohol Action NZ, is also advocating for an increased awareness of the negative health impacts of alcohol, including the little-known fact to many that alcohol causes cancer.  

Sellman’s key facts about alcohol and cancer include:

-          The World Health Organisation lists alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen (an agent that directly causes cancer);

-          The seven best documented alcohol-related cancers are: mouth, throat, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and breast.

-          There are about 250 alcohol-related cancer deaths per year in New Zealand;

-          The most common alcohol-related cause of death in New Zealand women is breast cancer and a third of these occur in women who drink less than 2 drinks a day on average.

Professor Doug Sellman, refers us to latest issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs recently released research in Canada which showed:

  1. Health warnings on alcoholic beverage containers, including that alcohol causes cancer, brings about a reduction in consumption of alcohol;
  2. These health warnings bring about an increase in knowledge by the public about health risks associated with alcohol; and
  3. The alcohol industry does its best to suppress such research.

Professor Sellman believes the alcohol industry should be warning its customers of the risk of cancer from consuming its product, and also believes that it is highly unlikely that the alcohol industry will voluntarily warn its customers about this.  

Read more from Professor Sellman here

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Alcohol use during lockdown

Te Hiringa Hauora/Health Promotion Agency commissioned Nielsen to undertake an online survey to look at the impact of level 4 conditions on people’s consumption of alcohol.   This survey was initiated due to widespread concerns about the availability of alcohol during lockdown.  

The results show good and bad news in terms of drinking during lockdown.  One third of respondents said they were drinking less than before, and almost half are drinking at the same levels.  One in five however, reported drinking more than usual during the level 4 lockdown, with increased drinking more prevalent among 25 to 49 year olds.   The main reasons given for an increase in drinking were to help relax or switch off. 

Te Hiringa Hauora General Manager Policy, Research and Advice Cath Edmondson also reflected on those mixed results with caution; “But more concerning is that 1 in 5, or around 20%, are drinking more, and this is pretty consistent across ethnic groups. We are concerned that this is likely to include people who were already drinking at hazardous levels before lockdown started.”

Some of us are also drinking more often, with 19% of those who drank in the last week drinking daily, compared to 11% pre-lockdown.  This type of daily drinking is particularly high for pākehā drinkers.    Added into this is that of our COVID-19 high risk groups - 1 in 3 older drinkers (aged 65+), or 33 %, are drinking daily compared with 26% prior to lockdown.    The reasons for this given were boredom, relaxation and stress relief.  

Read more about the survey results here.

The SHORE and Whariki Research Centre of Massey University are also completing an in-depth survey on alcohol use during COVID-19.  Go here to participate in the survey.