Home drinking becoming the new normal as alcohol sales surge during COVID

NEW YORK — With COVID spreading across America, a new study finds alcohol sales in the United States surged between March and September 2020. Researchers from Columbia University report that while U.S. alcohol retail store sales increased significantly, both restaurant and bar sales dropped dramatically. The findings point to the drastic change in lifestyles for many people during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns throughout 2020.

While study authors say the results might have been predictable, the results are no less concerning. They add that this suggests home drinking has become the new normal for many Americans during COVID.

“Our results appear to substantiate an increase in home drinking during the period, which could potentially lead to higher alcohol consumption and alcohol-related adverse health outcomes,” says first study author João Mauricio Castaldelli-Maia, MD, PhD in a media release.

The Columbia team analyzed data on beer, wine, and liquor store purchases from January 1992 to September 2020, provided by the Monthly Retail Trade Survey. Right from the very beginning of the pandemic, alcohol sales increased. Purchases reached their peak in the year’s third quarter. Between March and September 2020, U.S. retail alcohol purchases soared to $41.9 billion. That’s a 20-percent increase over the same time period in 2019 and an 18-percent increase over the previous seven-month period (August 2019 to February 2020). On a related note, restaurant and bar sales declined by 27 percent between March and September 2020.

In comparison to the first three quarters of 2019, the first three quarters of 2020 generated $7.5 billion more in retail alcohol sales.

Bars and restaurants still struggling

During the first two months of the pandemic (February to April 2020) restaurant and bar sales declined by over 50 percent. Since then, these establishments have seen their sales bounce back, but are still down from their pre-COVID-19 levels. By September 2020, restaurant and bar sales were about 15 percent under the pre-COVID norm while retail alcohol sales increased by 17 percent.

The fact that so many Americans are drinking more at home is concerning for a number of reasons. Study authors says people have been using alcohol to relax and deal with stress for centuries, but the public needs to be aware that beer and liquor isn’t a healthy way of coping. Studies have linked alcohol use to a number of adverse side-effects, and that’s not even including a link to domestic violence.

“While there is still much left to understand about alcohol use behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe it’s important to make more aggressive efforts to warn the population about the risks associated with increased home alcohol consumption during a pandemic,” concludes senior study author Silvia Martins, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School. “It is also important to investigate alcohol use behaviors among individuals at high risk of infection by SARS-CoV-2 such as frontline workers and among those living alone for longer isolation periods.”

The study is published in Alcohol.