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Yes, alcohol sales have increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic

Researchers have found alcohol sales spiked in mid-March 2020 and have remained higher than in previous years for most of the months since.

“We really did buy more alcohol during the early pandemic,” reads the headline of a Dec. 15 CNN article. A WebMD page from Aug. 24 says liquor sales rose during the pandemic. 

That reporting coincides with viral tweets from March 2020, which joked about excessive drinking in the pandemic. Google search trends also indicate that alcohol-related searches spiked in March and April 2020.

THE QUESTION

Have alcohol sales increased since the start of the pandemic?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, alcohol sales have increased since the start of the pandemic.

WHAT WE FOUND

Many Americans first experienced the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March 2020. That was the time many stay-at-home orders began and some workplaces sent their employees home — either to work remotely or to not work at all.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that alcohol sales at retail locations in the week of March 21, 2020, were 54% higher than sales in the same week a year before.

Alcohol sales leveled off somewhat, but remained high in the weeks that followed, according to researchers. Between March 1, 2020, and April 18, 2020, there was a 21% increase in in-store sales and a 234% increase in online sales of alcohol compared to the same time period in 2019.

However, the researchers noted that increases in sales didn’t necessarily mean there were increases in consumption at the same time. The researchers said it’s possible that people were simply stockpiling alcohol, much like many people did with toilet paper during March and April of 2020.

But data from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) indicates that per capita sales of alcohol have remained higher in 2020 and 2021 than sales were between 2017 and 2019. In fact, as of February 2021, sales have been higher in every month of the pandemic than they were pre-pandemic except for two months: In May 2020, when sales were 2.4% lower, and in November 2020, when sales were even with pre-pandemic levels.

Increased alcohol sales were driven, in large part, by spirits. In some months, large increases in wine sales also drove the overall increase in alcohol sales. Beer sales were lower in a majority of months, but were slightly higher in five of the 12 months the NIAAA published data for.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found an increase in alcohol consumption among survey participants to be 14% higher than consumption pre-pandemic. This study followed participants’ alcohol consumption over a six-week period for two separate groups in the summer of 2020.

Columbia University researchers found that increases in retail alcohol sales were mostly offset by decreases in alcohol sales at bars and restaurants. Sales at these places decreased by more than 50% between February and April of 2020, the researchers said. In September 2020, alcohol sales at bars and restaurants were 15% below pre-pandemic levels, while retail alcohol sales were 17% above pre-pandemic levels.

“These results may indicate an increase in home drinking during the period, which could potentially lead to higher alcohol consumption and alcohol-related adverse health outcomes,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

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