As the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic sunk in and stay-at-home orders stretched on in early 2020, boredom, anxiety and other emotions had people turning to a number of forms of escape, including a lot more alcohol.
With many restaurants forced to close indoor dining due to public safety mandates, all states but Utah relaxed their regulations, allowing people to purchase alcohol to go (which comprises 30 to 50% of restaurant sales). Delivery services like Drizly saw a 350% spike in sales from the same time period the year before, according to NPR. Alcohol quickly became the self-soothing go-to for many Americans, something that is understandable but concerns experts like Dr. Lorenzo Leggio, a researcher with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
He told NPR, “I get worried when people think about alcohol as a tool to unwind, a tool to cope with stress and anxiety,” and urged people to speak to a doctor or other mental health professional if they find they are drinking more than usual. For a closer look, see some of the ways Americans’ alcohol spending and consumption changed in the pandemic.
People Bought More Alcohol in General
Most shelter-in-place orders began in mid-March 2020, and not a week later, alcohol sales were surging. For the week ending March 21, 2020, Nielsen reported a 54% increase in national sales of alcohol compared with one year before. A large percentage of these sales were made online — increasing 262% from 2019.
People Bought More ‘Off-Premises’ Alcohol
The relaxing of restrictions that allowed people to purchase alcohol (even in open containers) meant a greater number of “off-premises” sales of alcohol. During the seven-week period after most shelter-in-place orders began, ending April 18, 2020, brick-and-mortar alcohol dollar sales were up 21%, while online sales of alcohol had skyrocketed to more than twice that of a year prior, up 234%. According to Nielsen, alcohol was the fastest-growing e-commerce department among consumer packaged goods at that time.
People Bought Larger Pack Sizes of Alcohol
Not only were people buying more alcohol, but they were also buying larger pack sizes beyond what was typical. Between Feb. 29 and April 18, 2020, sales for boxed wine were nearly 10 times greater than the year before, and sales of 1.75-liter spirits were 23 times higher. Among beer drinkers, consumers were purchasing larger pack sizes as well. Thirty-packs were up 21% and 24-packs up 20% in the week ending April 18.
Hard Seltzers and Cocktails Were the Most Popular
While alcohol sales were up across the board, people did have some preferences — sales of hard seltzers grew 288% during the week ending April 18, and cocktails increased the overall growth of the spirits category.
People Drank 14% More Alcohol in General
People drank so much more alcohol in the first couple months of the pandemic that the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) did an entire study on it. They found that participants were consuming 0.74 more drinks on average in a 30-day period in 2020 than 2019 (a 14% increase) across genders. Three out of four participants consumed an additional day more per month of drinking. One in five women increased their heavy drinking by 41% and 1 in 10 women showed an increase of 39% in the amount they drank, indicative of “alcohol-related problems independent of consumption.”
People Engaged in Binge-Drinking
Unfortunately, along with increased consumption came increased binge drinking. Participants in a study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reported consuming 26.8 alcoholic drinks on 12.2 of the 30 days period in which they were responding. One-third of participants (34.1%) reported binge drinking and 7% reported extreme binge drinking.
Pandemic-Induced Stress and Boredom Were Largely Responsible
The same study found that people’s reported reasons for increased drinking included increased stress (45.7%), increased alcohol availability (34.4%) and boredom (30.1%). Those who specifically tied their increased stress to the pandemic drank more over more days, raising public health concerns.
Although Sales Surged Early On, Overall Alcohol Sales Were Down
Though people spent more on alcohol early on in the pandemic, overall alcohol sales were actually down by 8%. Experts expect the industry to rebound to normal at some point in 2021.
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