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New research explores the drinking habits of Europeans during the first few months of the pandemic. coldsnowstorm/Getty Images
  • On average, European drinkers surveyed from 21 countries reported reducing their alcohol consumption during the first months of the pandemic.
  • A decline in the frequency of heavy episodic drinking events likely drove the decrease in overall alcohol consumption.
  • Drinkers from the United Kingdom stood out for reporting an increase in overall alcohol consumption.
  • The average consumption reported by Irish respondents remained unchanged.

Researchers gathered data from almost 32,000 alcohol users from 21 European countries from late April to late July 2020. The responses indicated that drinking in Europe declined on average during these first months of the pandemic.

In their paper about the survey, which appears in the journal Addiction, the researchers suggest that the decrease in heavy episodic (or binge) drinking episodes likely drove the reduced alcohol consumption.

Their work adds to a body of research looking at alcohol consumption around the globe during the pandemic. This research has delivered conflicting findings.

For instance, one study conducted in Bergen, Norway, following the first 6 weeks of a lockdown designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 found more than half of respondents reported hazardous drinking behavior, and about 1 in 13 people reported increased alcohol consumption.

Another cross-sectional online survey queried more than 800 U.S. adults in May 2020 and found 60% reported drinking more than they had before the pandemic.

Yet another survey, noted in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, found that of the 2,102 German participants, 37.7% reported no change in their alcohol drinking behavior, 19.4% reported drinking less, and 34.7% reported drinking more alcohol during lockdown. An additional 8.2% reported drinking no alcohol.

Dr. Michael Fingerhood, associate professor of medicine and public health at Johns Hopkins University who studies addiction, feels confident that drinking in the U.S. has increased during the pandemic. “Without a doubt,” he told Medical News Today.

The survey asked participants whether their frequency of drinking, the quantity of alcohol consumed, and the frequency of heavy episodic drinking, had changed during the past month.

The survey also asked them to report their alcohol habits before the pandemic, their pre-pandemic monthly net household income, and whether they had experienced financial difficulties or other pandemic-related stressors.

The researchers found that, on average, Europeans reduced their alcohol consumption during the first months of the pandemic. The most significant average decreases occurred in Albania, Finland, Greece, Italy, Slovakia, and Spain.

The average consumption remained unchanged in Ireland. Additionally, researchers reported drinking frequencies and quantities consumed per occasion increased considerably in the U.K. However, the frequency of heavy episodic drinking events did not increase there.

Researchers credit the decrease of alcohol consumption by Europeans overall with a decline in the frequency of heavy episodic drinking events.

People often drink alcohol as a maladaptive coping strategy for stress. In an article that appeared in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in October 2020, a research psychologist and an addiction psychiatrist warned that more people in the U.S. might be turning to alcohol as a way of dealing with the “myriad stressors” of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Alcohol, obviously, is a [coping strategy] for people who are feeling stressed,” Dr. Fingerhood told MNT. “We’re socially cued, right? At an early age, we learn to unwind with alcohol, to go to Friday happy hour, as a way to unwind after a tough week.”

The researchers suggest another reason for changes in drinking behavior during the pandemic in their paper about their survey: unemployment and financial insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis could have left some individuals struggling to purchase alcohol.

Additionally, they write, social distancing during the pandemic reduced the number of places where people could drink. Many restaurants and bars closed, which, they explain, could have decreased alcohol consumption.

The researchers also stress that many events, such as parties and concerts, were canceled due to the pandemic. Those are events where people often drink. “I think that’s probably true,” Dr. Fingerhood told MNT.

One in five survey respondents reported experiencing financial distress due to the pandemic, and more than half reported stress due to changes in everyday life. Respondents who reported stress were less likely to decrease their drinking than those who reported no stress.

The researchers reported that alcohol use generally declined among drinkers with low incomes, regardless of whether they experienced financial problems.

Among those with average or high incomes, the researchers said that changes in alcohol use were dependent on whether the individuals experienced money troubles during the pandemic.

Respondents with high income and no financial distress were most likely to report reductions in their alcohol use. In contrast, high-income participants who experienced financial distress did not tend to report reduced consumption.

According to the researches, these results indicate that reduced availability of alcohol may have been a more important determinant than the affordability of alcohol.

According to the researchers, females, younger adults, those with higher educational attainment, and high-income individuals were over-represented in the survey sample.

They warned that the survey might not have sufficiently represented older people, in particular. They also cautioned that under-reporting of alcohol consumption by respondents is a frequent limitation of surveys on alcohol use.