A new analysis of alcohol-buying habits from shops and supermarkets in Britain during lockdown periods in 2020 has revealed a shocking rise in the amount of alcohol bought by drinkers who may have already been at risk of alcohol-related health problems.
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: “This latest research on alcohol sales over the course of the pandemic highlights the urgent need for the Government to take action to protect the most vulnerable drinkers and disadvantaged communities from alcohol harm.
“We know the number of high-risk drinkers in the UK is on the rise. Numerous lockdowns, isolation, bereavement, and job losses have changed many people’s relationship with alcohol over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have seen deaths linked to alcohol reach record numbers and one in five people in the UK currently drink alcohol in a way that could harm their liver.
“The alcohol harm crisis will continue to deepen if the Government doesn’t take action now. This study suggests that minimum unit pricing can make a difference to purchases – with household alcohol purchases from shops and supermarkets in Scotland and Wales not increasing by the same level as England over the course of the 2020 lockdown. By failing to implement minimum unit pricing as part of its plans for public health, England is now falling further behind the rest of the UK in the race to tackle alcohol harm.”
The study, published today in international scientific journal PLOS ONE, could help to explain why 2020 saw the biggest jump in alcohol-related deaths in the UK in the last two decades.
National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East and North Cumbria
Academics from Newcastle University and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East and North Cumbria, found that Britain’s heaviest drinkers – those in the top fifth of households that would consistently purchase the most alcohol – bought around 17 times more from shops and supermarkets than the bottom fifth during the lockdown period between March and July 2020.
The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data reveals there were 8,974 registered deaths from alcohol-specific causes registered in the UK in 2020 – an 18.6% increase compared with 2019 and the highest year-on-year rise in 20 years.
Adults buying around a litre of vodka each week
This latest research analysed recorded shopping data from almost 80,000 households between 2015 and 2020, which included around 5 million purchases of alcohol, to map-out buying habits over time.
The average purchase per adult within the top fifth group was significantly higher than any other group – at around 38 units per week – which equates to just under a litre of 40% ABV vodka or four bottles of 12% ABV wine per person. However, this was averaged out per household, which could mean individuals in many households were drinking much more than this amount. Also, the shopping data may not have included extra ‘top-up’ purchases of alcohol that weren’t recorded – meaning actual levels could have been higher.
Households in more socially disadvantaged areas also bought more, as did those living in the North of England.
Unravelling a paradox
The study was carried out in an attempt to unravel what appeared to be a paradox between purchase data, public surveys and alcohol deaths – where overall shopping sales data had suggested that alcohol purchases in Britain did not appear to significantly increase after Covid-19 lockdowns were first announced in March of 2020, once the missing sales in pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants had been taken into account. However, many public surveys had suggested an increase in alcohol-related problems, and ONS data showed a sharp rise in deaths that were directly linked to alcohol misuse, indicating that some people were drinking a lot more.
This new study looked at that shopping data again – this time linking it more closely to factors such as household income, geographical location, alongside how much alcohol households would typically buy before lockdown.
The new analysis showed that the top fifth of households in England that would normally buy the most alcohol in shops and supermarkets increased their purchases around 17 times more than the bottom fifth. Households in more socially disadvantaged locations also bought more.
The study also found that households in the North of England – including the North East and Yorkshire and Humber regions – increased their purchases more than in any other part of Britain, with the suggestion that this is probably because the North has more heavier-purchasing households.
Patterns were different in Scotland and Wales
The analysis also showed that the increase in purchasing was generally less pronounced in Scotland and Wales compared to England, which could be down to the Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) policy currently in place in both Scotland and Wales – which has already been shown to reduce supermarket and store purchases of alcohol, particularly amongst some of the heaviest-drinking households.
The study comes as figures released earlier this week from the Government’s Office for Health Improvement and Disparities showed that around eight million people in England are drinking so much wine, beer or spirits at home that it is harmful to their health, with a large increase in the numbers of people drinking at levels considered to be dangerous.