Everyone knows that excessive alcohol consumption is dangerous.
A lesser known fact is that economic crises are associated with increases in alcohol consumption. And the world is currently experiencing an economic crisis.
It has been more than a year since the WHO declared a pandemic situation on March 11, 2020. In the same month, more than 135 countries on all continents were contaminated. The unprecedented, incalculable and to a vast extent unknown consequences, are as much economic as psychological. In these difficult times, the inhibiting effects of alcohol seem to be a good way to overcome stress, anxiety and depression.
At first glance, the technique seems to be adopted: studies by Jan Chodkiewicz and colleagues, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, count a 240% increase in alcohol sales by March 2020. While there is no clear link between increased sales and increased consumption, especially during this period when bars and restaurants are closed, other studies show that alcohol consumption has increased among those confined between April and September.
Not everyone is affected by this increased consumption. While gender or education do not appear to be factors, a clear increase is observed among people who had suicidal thoughts before and during the pandemic. Consumption also increased especially among people who were already drinking alcohol before the confinement. Loss of employment, unfortunately frequent in these times, is also a contributing factor.
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With 3 million deaths around the world every year, alcohol ranks among leading causes of premature death, yet avoidable. In addition, it is also associated in about 50% of all violent crimes and sexual assaults in industrialized countries. The side effects of heavy drinking are numerous: decreased motivation at work, increased risk of serious lung infections, depression, suicides. Moreover, the relaxing effect of alcohol is less effective in people who already drink a lot.
In addition to this, confinement worsens one point of the effects of alcohol: domestic violence. The latter has increased since the Covid-19 pandemic began, which is easily explained when you consider that drinkers now drink in their homes due to the lack of open public places. In addition, victims can no longer escape violent situations. If drinking has become more risky, it is because the place of consumption has moved to the home.
Some countries have decided to ban the sale of alcohol to avoid this problem. Although this ban has led to cases of delirium tremens, a withdrawal disorder, alcohol theft and deaths from the use of toxic alcohol (such as aftershave or paint polish), it has been shown that hospital admissions for alcohol withdrawal represent only a small proportion of all alcohol-related admits. This is backed by figures from South Africa which also used alcohol bans: trauma units received about 5,000 fewer visits each week as a result of the ban.
Other countries have introduced maximum purchase amounts to prevent overconsumption, but these remain rare. On the contrary, many national governments have considered the supply of alcohol essential. This product is now more readily available and affordable than ever before. The reasons are various, (sometimes not entirely justifiable): a study conducted by Tim Stockwell of the University of Victoria states that governments want to relieve the health system that would otherwise be burdened by alcohol-dependent people in withdrawal (although, this representation is almost insignificant). They also feel that an additional ban to a long list of other restrictions would not be a good idea. Finally, the alcohol industry lobbied hard (and effectively) to ease restrictions, for example on home delivery and to reduce taxes.
Drinking in these troubled times is not without risk. The place of consumption has changed, and drinkers are forced to drink at home, in the presence of their families, according to a study by Aaron Chalfin and his colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania. Add to this the loss of jobs due to the crisis, economic difficulties and daily stresses, it is easy for these factors to tip the scales and lead to an increase in violence. Drink, stress and confinement, the mix not to be made.
There is no shortage of examples of the benefits of alcohol restriction. Alcohol monopoly strikes in Canada and the Nordic countries have been associated with significant reductions in public intoxication, crime and demand for withdrawal treatment. Wine rationing during World War II, Gorbachev-era restrictions, and even American prohibition have all led to improved health.
Studies show us that where alcohol is consumed, rather than simply the volume of alcohol consumed, may be a primary factor in domestic violence. Drinking doesn't just involve us, it involves the people around us. Let's think about that.
Chodkiewicz, Jan, et al. "Alcohol consumption reported during the COVID-19 pandemic: the initial stage." International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17.13 (2020): 4677.
Narasimha, Venkata Lakshmi, et al. "Complicated alcohol withdrawal—an unintended consequence of COVID-19 lockdown." Alcohol and Alcoholism 55.4 (2020): 350-353.
Clay, James M., and Matthew O. Parker. "Alcohol use and misuse during the COVID-19 pandemic: a potential public health crisis?" The Lancet Public Health 5.5 (2020): e259.
McKetta, Sarah, Christopher N. Morrison, and Katherine M. Keyes. "Trends in US Alcohol Consumption Frequency During the First Wave of the SARS‐CoV‐2 Pandemic." Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research (2021).
Killgore, William DS, et al. "Alcohol dependence during COVID-19 lockdowns." Psychiatry research 296 (2021): 113676.
Stockwell, Tim, et al. "The burden of alcohol on health care during COVID‐19." Drug and Alcohol Review 40.1 (2021): 3-7.
World Health Organization. ”Addressing violence against children, women and older people during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Key actions.“ No. WHO/2019-nCoV/Violence_actions/2020.1. World Health Organization, 2020.
Chalfin, Aaron, Shooshan Danagoulian, and Monica Deza.”COVID-19 Has Strengthened the Relationship Between Alcohol Consumption and Domestic Violence.“ No. w28523. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2021.