Impacts of COVID-19 on alcohol and other drug use

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic (DoH 2020c), a range of measures were introduced in Australia in mid-March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19 (DoH 2020a). These measures were extended in late March 2020 with all non-essential services ordered by the Australian Government to temporarily close. This included licensed liquor outlets such as pubs and clubs, excluding bottle shops attached to these venues (DoH 2020b).

Throughout the several waves of the pandemic, restrictions were implemented and eased sporadically across the different states and territories. Some pubs and clubs were able to apply for a free short-term and temporary licence to sell take-away liquor (APH 2020).

As a result of these measures, it was expected that variations in sales and consumption of alcohol, drinking patterns and illicit drug use will have an impact on the Australian population (ADF 2020; Dietze & Peacock 2020). As such, the Australian Government announced in April 2020 that an additional $6 million would be allocated to online and phone support services for people experiencing drug and alcohol problems (Hunt 2020).

Several studies have been undertaken or are underway, with the specific aim of assessing the impact of COVID-19.

Data sources are not directly comparable and care should be taken when interpreting data; see the Data Quality statement on each source for further information on collection time periods, sample selection and methods.
 

View the Alcohol and other drugs during COVID-19 fact sheet >

Smoking prevalence during the COVID-19 pandemic

Australian Bureau of Statistics - Pandemic insights into Australian smokers

The Australian Bureau of Statistics report Pandemic insights into Australian smokers, 2020-21 combines smoking information from multiple surveys conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic into a single data set. The snapshot of Australian smoking prevalence in 2020–21 estmated that, based on self reported data:

  • 1 in 10 adults were current daily smokers (10.7% or 2.1 million adults).
  • Men (12.6%) were more likely than women (8.8%) to smoke daily.
  • Those aged 55–64 accounted for the highest proportion of daily smokers at 13.7%; the lowest proportion was in the 15–17 year old age group (1.4%).
  • Adults with fair or poor health were more likely to be current daily smokers (17.7%).
  • Adults living in areas of most disadvantage were more than three times as likely to be current daily smokers compared with adults living in areas of least disadvantage (17.8% and 5.8%, respectively).
  • Adults living in outer regional and remote Australia were almost twice as likely to be current daily smokers compared with those living in major cities (17.9% and 9.3%) (ABS 2022).

Spending on alcohol

Commonwealth Bank of Australia – card spend data

CBA card spend data showed an initial increase in spending on alcohol in March 2020, which may have been driven by stockpiling in response to concerns that bottle shops may close with the introduction of tighter restrictions. This pattern reversed in April 2020 (G Aird 2020, pers. comm.,14 May).

Throughout the period May 2020 to early February 2021, CBA card spending on alcohol goods (such as bottle shops) continued to be higher when compared to the equivalent period in the previous year while there was a decline in spending on alcohol services (such as pubs and clubs). Spending on alcohol services increased in mid-November  

A decline in spending on alcohol services (such as pubs and clubs) was reversed in mid-November 2020 for the first time since COVID-19 restrictions were introduced (CBA 2020).

There are several caveats to note when interpreting the Commonwealth Bank of Australia card spending data; refer to section Data quality: Commonwealth Bank of Australia, CBA Card Spend.

Along with declines in the value of alcohol sales, leading alcohol producers and distributors have also reported declines in the volume of alcohol sold in April 2020 when compared with the previous year. The percentage change in the volume of alcohol sold ranged from 6.8% lower for wine to 61% lower for cider. While the volume of alcohol sold in the first 2 weeks of May 2020 had increased, the volume sold was still lower when compared with the same period in 2019 (ABA 2020).

Purchase and consumption of alcohol and other drugs

The results from several self-reported surveys have produced mixed findings with regard to the impact of COVID-19 on the consumption of alcohol and other drugs. Some examples of these findings are provided below. For more information about these self-reported surveys, see the Data Quality section.

ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey

The ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey collected information from approximately 1,000 people fortnightly throughout Australia. Several survey waves have included questions about alcohol and other drug consumption.

Wave 3 (29 April–4 May 2020) of the survey included a question about changes in smoking and the consumption of alcohol and prescription medicines in the previous 4 weeks due to COVID-19 (ABS 2020a).

  • Nearly half (47.1%) of participants said their consumption of alcohol stayed the same, and 28.9% reported that they do not usually consume alcohol.
    • 14.4% reported an increase—a higher proportion of females (18%) than males (10.8%) reported increased alcohol consumption.
    • 9.5% reported a decrease (ABS 2020a).
  • Almost 9 in 10 (87.5%) people reported that they did not usually smoke, and a further 9.0% said their tobacco consumption (including cigarettes, cigars, e-cigarettes and other tobacco products) stayed the same.
  • Most people said their consumption of prescription or over the counter medications stayed the same (62.4%) or that they did not usually consume medications (34.9%) (ABS 2020a).

Wave 7 (24–29 June 2020) of the survey included a question about consumption of alcohol in the last 2 weeks compared to usual consumption before March 2020 (ABS 2020b). Notably, participants who reported that they did not usually consume alcohol were included in Wave 3 (April–May 2020) but excluded from analysis in Wave 7 (June 2020). However, results were broadly similar across both waves.

  • Most people reported that their alcohol consumption stayed at the same level (71.5%) or decreased (14.7%) compared to before March 2020, and 13.9% reported drinking more (Figure COVID1).
  • Females (15.9%) remained more likely than males (12.1%) to report increased alcohol consumption (ABS 2020b).

The May 2021 iteration of the survey included a question about using or cutting out alcohol or drugs as a strategy in managing mental health since March 2020.

  • Using alcohol or drugs as a strategy was used by 10.3% of men and 6.3% of women. People aged 18 to 34 years were most likely to use this strategy at 11.6%.
  • Cutting out alcohol or drugs as a strategy was used by 3.7% of men and 3.8% of women. People aged 18 to 34 years were most likely to use this strategy at 4.5% (ABS 2021b).

Figure COVID1: Change in alcohol use during COVID-19 among people aged 18 and over (per cent)

This infographic shows changes in alcohol consumption in June 2020 compared to before March 2020. In June 2020 in the past 2 weeks, 71.5%25 of people aged 18 and over reported that they drank the same amount of alcohol, 14.7%25 drank less and 13.9%25 drank more.

Note: Data collection took place from 24–29 June 2020. Participants were asked to report on their alcohol consumption in the last 2 weeks compared to usual consumption before March 2020.

Source: AIHW. Adapted from Wave 7 of the ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey.

National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program

The National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program (NWDMP) measures the presence of substances in over 58 sewerage treatment plants across Australia; in 2021, this covered approximately 57% of the population. Reports 11 to 15 of the program covered the period from December 2019 to October 2021 for both regional and capital city sites (ACIC 2022).

The introduction of COVID-19 restrictions nationally in March 2020 had a notable effect on alcohol consumption. The usual increase in weekend consumption became less common as pubs, clubs and restaurants who serve alcohol either closed or had restricted customer numbers. Once restrictions were eased in June 2020, several jurisdictions showed a rebound in alcohol consumption, with weekend use once again markedly higher than weekday use (ACIC 2021).

Initial COVID-19 restrictions did not produce immediate disruptions to Australia’s drug markets in 2019–20 as existing supplies were consumed. However, market disruptions were seen in 2020–21, with impacts differing between drug types, and both between, and within, jurisdictions.

Using an estimated population-weighted average, decreases in consumption between 2019–2020 and 2020–2021 were seen in methylamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA and heroin. However, record levels of cannabis consumption were recorded in both capital cities and regional areas in August 2021, despite being effected earlier in the pandemic during 2020 and 2021 (ACIC 2022).

Figure COVID2: Changes in the estimated population-weighted average consumption of drugs monitored in wastewater from April to August 2021

The figure shows changes in detections of substances in wastewater from April to August 2021. The population-weighted average estimated consumption of alcohol decreased in capital cities, and increased in regional areas. Other drug types can be selected; these are cannabis, cocaine, heroin, MDMA, and methylamphetamine.

Cocaine consumption has been steadily increasing in most capital cities and many regional parts of Australia prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and has seen a decline in the current reporting period.

Heroin consumption has fluctuated in capital cities since the start of the pandemic and has increased in the current reporting period.

Methylamphetamine consumption has been consistently high for both capital cities and regional sites however reached a record low in the current reporting period (ACIC 2022).

Australians' Drug Use: Adapting to Pandemic Threats (ADAPT) Study

The Australians' Drug Use: Adapting to Pandemic Threats (ADAPT) Study asked Australians who had used illicit drugs at least once a month in 2019 about their drug use during COVID-19 restrictions (Wave 1: “from the beginning of March 2020”; Waves 2, 3 and 4: “in the past 4 weeks”) as compared to before March 2020. The initial online survey (Wave 1) is to be followed up at intervals between 2 months and 3 years. Data collection periods for the first four waves are as follows:

  • Wave 1: 29 April–15 June 2020
  • Wave 2: 29 June–22 September 2020
  • Wave 3: 29 October 2020–13 January 2021
  • Wave 4: 29 April­–20 July 2021 (Baillie et al. 2021)

Preliminary findings relate to the 197 participants who completed all surveys from Waves 1–4. Wave 4 findings show that, among people who had recently used each drug type, compared to before March 2020:

  • Across all the drug types, cannabis (33%) and e-cigarettes (43%) had the largest proportion of participants reporting that their use had increased in the last 4 weeks. This is the first time the proportion of people increasing their use of e-cigarettes has been higher than those increasing their use of cannabis and alcohol.
  • The proportion of Wave 4 participants who decreased their perceived alcohol use in the past 4 weeks was the highest since the study began (38%).
  • MDMA (49%), nitrous oxide (43%) and cocaine (42%) had the highest proportions of people reporting decreased use in the last four weeks, as compared to before March 2020.
  • GHB (55%) and hallucinogenic mushrooms (53%) had the highest proportions of people reporting that their use in the last 4 weeks had remained stable (Figure COVID3) (Baillie et al. 2021).

Figure COVID3: Change in alcohol or illicit drug use since March 2020 among people aged 18 and over who use illicit drugs at least monthly, by drug type (per cent)

This figure shows that, at Wave 1 (29 April–15 June 2020), over 2 in 5 (45%) people increased their alcohol use. This declined to 35% at Wave 2, 34% at Wave 3 and 28% at Wave 4 (29 June–22 September 2020, 29 October 2020–13 January 2021 and 29 April 2020–20 July 2021 respectively). By contrast, the proportion of people who reported stable use steadily increased from 25% at Wave 1 to 37% at Wave 3 before decreasing slightly to 34% at Wave 4. Around 1 in 3 people (29%–33%) reported a decrease in alcohol use in Waves 1–3 before increasing  to 38% in Wave 4. Other drug types can be selected via a drop-down menu.

Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS)

In 2021 the Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS) collects information from people who use estacy and other illicit stimulants on a regular basis. In 2021, data collection took place between April-August 2021. Findings from the 774 participants indicate that when the past 6 months was compared with the previous year:

  • Ecstasy use was reported by 95% of participants, a decline from 99% in 2020.
  • Methamphetamine use increased from 24% in 2020 to 26% in 2021.
  • Cocaine use has continued to  increase. In 2021, 80% of participants reported recent use, an increase from 68% in 2020.
  • Recent use of cannabis declined significantly, from 88% in 2020 to 84% in 2021 (Sutherland et al. 2021a).

Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS)

The Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) sample collects information from a sentinel group of people residing in capital cities in Australia, aged 18 years or older and who have injected illicit drugs at least monthly in the last 6 months. Data collection in 2021 took place between June–July 2021. Findings from 888 participants indicate that:

  • Recent use of any methamphetamine significantly increased to 80% in 2021, from 72% in 2020. Participants reporting recent use in 2021 was similar to 2019 (78%).
  • Recent use of any heroin decreased from 63% in 2020 to 50% in 2021.
  • Recent use of cocaine in 2021 remained stable relative to 2020 (15% and 17% respectively).
  • Recent use of any cannabis remained stable at 16% of participants in 2020 and 2021.
  • Recent use of non-prescribed pregabalin increased from 14% in 2020 to 16% in 2021 (Sutherland et al. 2021b).

The COVID-19 vaccine acceptability among people in Australia who inject drugs: Update from the 2021 Illicit Drug Reporting System interviews collected data on vaccine intentions in June–July 2021, during the early stages of the vaccine rollout. People who inject drugs may experience a higher level of adverse health outcomes following COVID-19 infection due to higher rates of comorbidity and may also experience barriers in accessing health care such as economic disadvantage and stigma. The findings from this report showed a high level of vaccine hesitancy among people who inject drugs.

Unvaccinated participants were asked the question ‘do you intend to get vaccinated for COVID-19?’ and around 1 in 2 (48%) reported hesitancy to receive the vaccine. Among those who reported vaccine hesitancy:

  • 22% responded ‘definitely not’
  • 13% responded ‘probably not’
  • 13% responded ‘not sure yet’.

The main reason for vaccine hesitancy was vaccine safety (41%) followed by vaccine side effects (35%) and perceived low risk of disease acquisition (17%). However, the change from an elimination approach to COVID-19, to maximising vaccine coverage may mean vaccine intentions have changed over time (Price et al. 2022).

Drug Use Monitoring in Australia

The Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) program is an ongoing monitoring program that captures information on illicit drug use among police detainees across 5 locations throughout Australia.

Data from the 2020 DUMA report indicate that methamphetamine use and markets were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, past-month use of methamphetamine fell from 55% of police detainees in Quarter 1 (January–February; pre-COVID restrictions) to 39% in Quarter 4 (October–November). Among those who reported past-month use of methamphetamine:

  • Median ratings of methamphetamine availability decreased from Quarter 1 (January–February; pre-COVID restrictions) to Quarter 3 (July–August), but increased again in Quarter 4 (October–November).
  • After Quarter 1, detainees reported a decrease in the frequency and quantity of methamphetamine consumed, as well as a decrease in the quality of methamphetamine (Voce & Sullivan 2021).

Among detainees who reported past-month use of heroin, median ratings of availability and quality also declined after Quarter 1, with availability ratings increasing in Quarter 4 (Voce & Sullivan 2021).

UNSW longitudinal study of drinking behaviours in NSW associated with lockdown measures

The UNSW longitudinal study of drinking behaviours is an online survey conducted in waves matched to alcohol-related policy changes in NSW (Baseline: Pre-lockdown; Wave 1: NSW Lockdown; Wave 2: Easing of restrictions).

For the matched sample of 287 participants at Wave 2: Easing restrictions, the direction of change reported at Wave 1 (i.e. consumption decreased, increased or remained the same) was generally sustained overall. However, the patterns of changes in alcohol consumption were not consistent for all participants (Ritter el al. 2020).

  • Of those who reported increased consumption during Wave 1: Lockdown:

    • the majority (72%) returned to a level that was similar to the Baseline at Wave 2 (the average number of standard drinks per week reported for each wave was 12, 24 and 14, Baseline, Wave 1 and Wave 2 respectively)
    • 19% had remained at that level during Wave 2 (an average of 7.5, 14 and 13.5 standard drinks per week, Baseline, Wave 1 and Wave 2 respectively)
    • however, for 1 in 10 (9.5%), the initial increase was followed by a further increase at Wave 2 (an average of 12, 17 and 31 standard drinks per week, Baseline, Wave 1 and Wave 2  respectively) (Ritter et al. 2020).
  • Of those who reported decreased consumption during Wave 1: Lockdown:

    • 47% remained at that level during Wave 2 (the average number of standard drinks per week reported for each wave was 11, 2 and 2, Baseline, Wave 1 and Wave 2 respectively)
    • however, for 41% the initial decrease was followed by an increase at Wave 2 (an average of 18, 4 and 14 standard drinks per week, Baseline, Wave 1 and Wave 2 respectively)
    • for 12%, the initial decrease was followed by a further decrease at Wave 2 (an average of 31, 23 and 13 standard drinks per week, Baseline, Wave 1 and Wave 2 respectively) (Ritter et al. 2020).

ANUPoll

The 34th ANUpoll collected information during the early stages of the pandemic, (between 12–24 May 2020) from 3,219 respondents aged 18 years and over across Australia. Respondents were asked several specific questions related to changes in alcohol consumption during COVID-19 and about their consumption of tobacco and illicit drugs (Biddle et al. 2020a).

With regard to changes in alcohol consumption:

  • of those who reported that they drank at all (excluding those who said they never drink alcohol), a higher proportion of respondents reported that their alcohol consumption decreased since the spread of COVID-19 in Australia (27%, compared with 20% who said it had increased).
  • a higher proportion of females reported that their alcohol consumption had increased (18.1% compared with 15.5% for males). Note: those who said that they never drink alcohol were included in this analysis as not having changed their alcohol consumption.
  • of those who reported an increase in alcohol consumption, nearly half (46%) said that the increase was 1–2 standard drinks per week and 28% reported an increase of 3-4 standard drinks (Figure COVID4).
  • The most common reason given for increased alcohol consumption was that the person is spending more time at home (67% for males and 64% for females). The next most common response for males was ‘Boredom, nothing else to do’ (49%) while for females it was ‘Increased stress’ (42%). Note, respondents were able to nominate more than one reason (Biddle et al. 2020a).

Figure COVID4: Increased alcohol use during COVID-19, people aged 18 and over (per cent)

This infographic shows that 1 in 5 people reported increased alcohol use during COVID-19. Of those, almost half had an extra 1–2 drinks per week and 28%25 had an extra 3–4 drinks. Females were more likely than males to report increased use (18.1%25 compared to 15.5%25).

Note: The comparison for males and females included people who said they never drink alcohol as "no change" in alcohol consumption.

Source: AIHW. Adapted from 34th ANUPoll.

Respondents were also asked how often, if at all, they currently smoked tobacco and whether their level of illicit drug use had increased. There was little change in the proportion of current smokers in the May 2020 sample—11.8% were current smokers compared with 12.2% who were current smokers when they were recruited to the panel. For respondents who used illicit drugs, more than one quarter (26%) reported a decrease in their consumption while 17.6% reported an increase (Biddle et al. 2020a).

Alcohol sales and use during the COVID-19 period April 2020 (FARE)

The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) conducted a poll of 1,045 Australians aged 18 years and over during the period 3–5 April 2020. The key finding from this poll was that one in five (20%) respondents reported that their household had bought more alcohol than usual since the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia in early 2020. Of those respondents:

  • 70% reported they were drinking more alcohol than usual
  • 34% were now drinking alcohol daily
  • 28% reported they were drinking alcohol to cope with anxiety and stress
  • 32% were concerned with the amount of alcohol either they, or someone else in their household is drinking (FARE 2020).

Physical and mental health and treatment

Physical and mental health

The January 2021 ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey (18–31 January 2021) asked Australians aged 18 and over to describe strategies they used to manage their physical and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic (ABS 2021). This included questions about changes in use of alcohol and other drugs, for example cutting down alcohol use.

  • Physical health: 5.9% of people said they had cut out or reduced alcohol consumption to manage their physical health since 1 March 2020 due to COVID-19, and 1.2% reported quitting or reducing smoking.
    • Females (6.2%) were more likely than males (5.5%) to report cutting out or reducing alcohol consumption for their physical health.
  • Mental health: 3.2% of people reported using alcohol or drugs and 1.8% reported using prescription medicines as a strategy to manage their mental health since 1 March 2020 due to COVID-19. Conversely, 1.9% reported cutting out alcohol or drugs to manage their mental health.
    • Females (2.5%) were more likely than males (0.8%) to report using prescription medicines as a strategy for mental health.
    • Males were more likely than females to report using alcohol or drugs for their mental health (3.6% compared to 3.0%), but were also more likely to report cutting out alcohol or drugs (2.6%, compared to 1.5% for females) for the same reason.

The 2021 IDRS (June–July 2021) reported that 47% of participants had experienced a mental health problem in the last six months and 28% of total participants had seen a mental health professional in the same period (Sutherland et al. 2021b).

The 2021 EDRS and IDRS collected information on COVID-19 vaccination rates, with 11% of EDRS participants and 10% of IDRS participants reporting they had received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the time of interview (Sutherland et al. 2021a; Sutherland et al. 2021b).

Access to alcohol and other drug treatment

Data from the 34th ANUPoll showed there was a significant unmet need for drug and alcohol counselling early in the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2020, 0.5% of Australians aged 18 and over said they needed drug or alcohol counselling in the last 2 months. Of these, just under 2 in 5 (39.4%) people sought help (Biddle & Gray 2020b). A total of 78,360 Australians reported they needed drug or alcohol counselling and either did not seek support or experienced significant barriers to treatment. Barriers included cost and not knowing who to contact (Biddle & Gray 2020b). 

Data from the Australians' Drug Use: Adapting to Pandemic Threats (ADAPT) Study indicate that 6% of people who regularly use illicit drugs had accessed drug treatment across 4 surveys conducted from April 2020 to July 2021 (6% in Wave 3, 7% in Wave 2 and 4% at Wave 1). At Wave 4 (April–July 2021), 0.5% of respondents reported that they had tried to access drug treatment in the past 4 weeks but were unable to. This is compared to 2% at Waves 1–3 (Baillie et al. 2021).

Further information

This release includes data relating to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic up to November 2021. For other data and information from this period, please see our AIHW COVID-19 resources.