Do alcohol and COVID-19 isolation mix? Some health experts don’t think so

A shopper wears a mask and gloves at the liquor store. Alcohol sales across Canada increased in March as people stocked up to stay home. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Long lines. Shoppers, many of them wearing masks, standing two metres apart.

Is it worth the risk of community interaction during a deadly pandemic just to load up on booze?

The answer for some Canadians, it would seem, is yes.

As with sales of groceries, medications and other goods, alcohol sales increased across the country in March as people stockpiled bottles to prepare for a long isolation through the COVID-19 outbreak.

That has some addiction experts warning that those packed fridges and liquor cabinets mixed with hours of isolation at home could lead to much higher consumption, even among Canadians who typically drink in moderation.

“I think that what this crisis we’re in might have revealed is that, for an important number of Canadians, perhaps alcohol is more essential to them in their lives than they thought it was,” said Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), a non-governmental organization that seeks to reduce alcohol- and drug-related harms.

Another concern expressed by some experts who spoke with CBC News is that Canadians — already identified by the World Health Organization as being some of the heaviest drinkers per capita in the developed world — may increasingly turn to alcohol to dull anxieties and fear during the global crisis.

Like the Christmas rush

CBC News asked all provincial liquor authorities for sales figures covering the past four weeks.

Some declined to provide hard numbers, but all acknowledged a jump in sales as consumers stocked up on wine, beer and spirits.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, overall alcohol sales jumped 36 per cent in March compared with the same time last year. Privately run Liquor Express stores, which remained open to pop-in traffic, saw a 70 per cent spike in business. Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation stores shifted to pre-order and pickup sales only on March 21.

P.E.I. witnessed large lineups in late March when the province temporarily shuttered its large provincially run liquor stores, driving up sales at privately operated “agency” outlets by 244 per cent in one week.

In Quebec, a spokesperson for the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) likened it to the Christmas sales rush, while B.C. saw over-the-counter sales jump by 40 per cent in March compared with February, with bulk sizes of liquor, beer and wine up more than 120 per cent.

All provinces have adjusted retail liquor operations to remain open to customers or provide pickup or delivery options after declaring it an essential service along with places like grocery stores and pharmacies.

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The opinions expressed in this post are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the FASD Prevention Conversation Project, its stakeholders or funders.

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