ONS statistics revealed a 31% surge in the volume of UK retail alcohol sales in March. It could be easy to assume that individuals are now drinking more, with boredom or stress having set in. But monthly alcohol sales are notoriously volatile: are people drinking greater volumes more frequently or, like other groceries and household goods, are they purchasing to stock up?
With research showing that nine in ten adults visits pubs or bars, living under lockdown has required a huge shift in behaviour for many. But without the ability to pop to the local whenever we want, are people now drinking more or less at home, has the way in which we drink actually changed, and what are the implications for alcohol testing?
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Triggers for increased alcohol consumption
A psychological study from early 2019 reveals a range of factors that trigger alcohol cravings amongst those diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. These include being alone, as well as being anxious, tired, stressed, sad, frustrated, irritable, angry, distressed or disgusted.
As the Mental Health Foundation states, “Mental health problems not only result from drinking too much alcohol, they can also cause people to drink too much”. While alcohol is commonly used to ‘self-medicate’ to temporarily relieve individuals from the feelings and emotions described above, it can also make existing mental health problems worse.
"Mental health is a growing concern as a result of Covid-19."
And mental health is a growing concern as a result of Covid-19. A survey of UK nurses reveals that one-third are experiencing ‘severe’ mental health problems as a result of the pandemic. Nearly a quarter of UK adults have experienced loneliness since lockdown began. And 83% of young people with existing mental health problems state that the pandemic has made their mental health worse.
With this in mind, it could reasonably be expected that drinking habits will have changed since the pandemic began. But is this the case?
The impact of Covid-19 on alcohol consumption
It has been estimated that fifty million pints of beer will remain unused in barrels in the UK’s pubs as a result of them remaining closed into the summer - but an ONS report in late April revealed a 31.4% surge in sales volumes in alcohol-focused stores. Meanwhile, The Independent reports that online alcohol retailers have seen a surge in demand, with Wineapp seeing a 1,500% boost in sales, and The Whisky World reporting an 82% revenue increase since the start of lockdown.
However, drinking behaviours appear to be very polarised. A survey for the charity Alcohol Change UK found that while one in five people are drinking more frequently, one in three are ‘taking steps to manage or stop drinking’ and 6% have stopped drinking altogether.
Those who had cut down the most tended to be those for whom drinking was previously not an issue, while 18% of those who already drank daily stated that they have increased their alcohol consumption. However, the risks of alcohol over-consumption go further than just the individual. As well as risking longer term habits that can be hard to break, household situations could be affected. The Alcohol Change UK survey reveals that one in fourteen respondents say that tensions within their household have become worse as a result of alcohol consumption since lockdown - a figure which rises to one in seven in households with children under 18. With this in mind, what are the potential social costs of increased drinking throughout lockdown?
The social cost of lockdown drinking
It is already estimated that there are around 200,000 children in England alone who live with an alcohol-dependent parent or carer. Should individuals adopt longer term alcohol misuse habits as a result, it is likely that this number will rise higher. Living alongside this kind of substance misuse can affect a child’s mental health, as well as increasing the risk that they will also develop addictions down the line.
"...a substantial increase in calls to domestic violence charities since the pandemic began..."
Research also shows that men who are dependent on alcohol or drugs are six to seven times more likely to be involved in domestic abuse against women. And with a substantial increase in calls to domestic violence charities since the pandemic began, this could spell disaster should alcohol use also rise. Should social services need to become involved, it will be vital to undertake a rigorous programme of alcohol testing, both to help the individuals to rehabilitate, and to protect their families.
Alcohol testing options
For accuracy, monitoring and to minimise the risk of tampering, there are two forms of alcohol testing that we recommend.
Hair strand testing can detect the use of alcohol between seven days and six months after its consumption, making it ideal for monitoring levels of alcohol use month by month over time. This can be incredibly beneficial for family law cases where courts need to see changes in behaviour before they can make their decision. We take a small sample of hair from the subject’s head (or elsewhere on their body if they are bald), before transporting it back to our lab, and returning results within three days.
For a shorter-term view, a blood PEth test can indicate alcohol consumption within the last month. The simple finger prick test measures levels of alcohol biomarker phosphatidylethanol (PEth) in the blood, and can discriminate between occasional drinkers, moderate use and heavy consumption.
Some of our clients also choose to combine both hair and PEth testing, which allows them to show differences or comparisons between recent and long-term alcohol use.
Life under lockdown has changed for almost everyone in the UK, and people are using a variety of methods to get through the inevitable anxiety, stress and boredom that the Covid-19 pandemic is causing. While much of the population has cut down its drinking - or stopped altogether - those drinking more tend to be more likely to be those who were already drinking regularly before. The social cost of this behaviour could be devastating for individuals and families alike, which is why it is so vital to implement alcohol testing programmes amongst at-risk individuals, reducing the risk of longer-term damage to both themselves and their loved ones.
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