Health·CBC Investigates

Do alcohol and COVID-19 isolation mix? Some health experts don't think so

Liquor store sales increased across the country in March as Canadians stocked up to wait out the COVID-19 lockdown. That has some addiction experts warning about the potentially risky mix of packed liquor cabinets, stress, anxiety and weeks stuck at home.

Liquor store sales rise in March as Canadians hunker down at home to wait out the pandemic

A shopper wears a mask and gloves at the liquor store. Alcohol sales across Canada increased in March as people stocked up to stay home. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Long lines. Shoppers, many of them wearing masks, standing two metres apart.

Is it worth the risk of community interaction during a deadly pandemic just to load up on booze?

The answer for some Canadians, it would seem, is yes.

As with sales of groceries, medications and other goods, alcohol sales increased across the country in March as people stockpiled bottles to prepare for a long isolation through the COVID-19 outbreak.

That has some addiction experts warning that those packed fridges and liquor cabinets mixed with hours of isolation at home could lead to much higher consumption, even among Canadians who typically drink in moderation.

"I think that what this crisis we're in might have revealed is that, for an important number of Canadians, perhaps alcohol is more essential to them in their lives than they thought it was," said Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), a non-governmental organization that seeks to reduce alcohol- and drug-related harms.

Another concern expressed by some experts who spoke with CBC News is that Canadians — already identified by the World Health Organization as being some of the heaviest drinkers per capita in the developed world — may increasingly turn to alcohol to dull anxieties and fear during the global crisis.

WATCH | Paradis says mixing booze with isolation comes with potential risks:

Making booze sales ‘essential’ is risky, expert says

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Featured VideoAlcohol may be more ‘essential’ in our lives than we care to admit, says expert Catherine Paradis.

Like the Christmas rush

CBC News asked all provincial liquor authorities for sales figures covering the past four weeks.

Some declined to provide hard numbers, but all acknowledged a jump in sales as consumers stocked up on wine, beer and spirits.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, overall alcohol sales jumped 36 per cent in March compared with the same time last year. Privately run Liquor Express stores, which remained open to pop-in traffic, saw a 70 per cent spike in business. Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation stores shifted to pre-order and pickup sales only on March 21.  

P.E.I. witnessed large lineups in late March when the province temporarily shuttered its large provincially run liquor stores, driving up sales at privately operated "agency" outlets by 244 per cent in one week.

In Quebec, a spokesperson for the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) likened it to the Christmas sales rush, while B.C. saw over-the-counter sales jump by 40 per cent in March compared with February, with bulk sizes of liquor, beer and wine up more than 120 per cent.

All provinces have adjusted retail liquor operations to remain open to customers or provide pickup or delivery options after declaring it an essential service along with places like grocery stores and pharmacies.

That has prompted complaints from some liquor store employees who fear reporting to work during the outbreak.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford cited concern for those with alcohol dependance as the basis for classifying liquor stores as an essential service that must stay open during the pandemic. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford cited concern for people with a dependence on alcohol as a basis for keeping liquor stores open.

"I know there are some people at home thinking, 'How does that work?'" he said at a news conference last month. "Well, there are people out there with addictions. We're there to help them."

The province's cannabis stores were also initially on the list of essential services, but the Ford government changed its position last week and ordered them closed. Cannabis is still available online through the government-owned Ontario Cannabis Store.  

Researchers say while most Canadians are not addicted to alcohol, a small percentage of drinkers are so dependent that if liquor stores were to close, they could face serious withdrawal and possibly put added strain on the overburdened health-care system.

Ann Dowsett Johnston, author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, says there are other reasons provinces have kept liquor stores open.

"No. 1, it's a cash cow. No one wants to shut it down," she said.

No. 2, she said, governments are asking the public to endure some really tough times.

"And the last thing you want to do is be the government that took away their alcohol," she said.

"Alcohol is how we relax, we celebrate, we reward and we deal with anxiety … and this is a very anxious public, very worried, very scared," Dowsett Johnston said.

WATCH | Walk the long line outside a liquor store in Toronto:

Long liquor store lineups in Toronto during COVID-19 pandemic

4 years ago
Duration 1:09
Featured VideoA liquor store lineup is 50 people deep in downtown Toronto as shoppers await their turn.

Jay Mercier, a teacher in Toronto, stood in line Friday to buy a bottle of wine for a video-chat game party with friends to break up the boredom of isolation.

He said he isn't consuming more alcohol than usual while being cooped up at home.

"I've actually been doing hobbies more, cooking more, baking more, helping my girlfriend out with her business," he said. 

Winchester Liao visits Toronto liquor stores almost every day as a "booze-runner" for delivery company Runner, which has seen an increase in orders from people staying at home. 

"Some are very cautious and really scared [to go shopping]," Liao said.

Funny/not funny

Social media has been awash in images, jokes and memes about all of this alcohol stockpiling, as people anticipate long weeks ahead staying indoors in isolation.

But there is a darker side, addiction experts warn.

While clubs and bars are closed and social get-togethers cancelled, with people stockpiling alcohol at home — and many with more time on their hands as they're stuck inside — Paradis says there is the risk of both greater consumption and an increase in predictable associated harms, such as domestic violence and child neglect.

"There's a real risk that people will drink more often and in greater quantity than usual," said Paradis, who points out that studies have shown Canadian drinking culture is largely built around weekends and time off.

"Right now, in this crisis, all those boundaries are blurred," she said. "So what will that mean when possibly every day feels like a Friday or a Saturday, or there's always an excuse to have a drink, and then you have alcohol in the house?"

At this point, Paradis doesn't have an answer. She acknowledges there is no data yet on peoples' drinking habits during this unprecedented situation.

WATCH | Closing liquor stores wasn't an option, but we still need to talk about the risks that come with isolation and increased anxiety, author says:

Beware pandemic binge drinking, author warns

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Featured VideoBooze, anxiety, isolation a ‘recipe for disaster’ during COVID-19 crisis.

Ann Dowsett Johnston says she's concerned about what's happening inside isolated homes where children, with school closed, are exposed to increased heavy drinking or alcoholism.

"I grew up in one of those homes and it's a very, very, very difficult place to be when you're a kid," she said.

Costs of a 'wet apocalypse'

Others who study substance use and addiction say people under the influence could be more likely to ignore public health directives around physical isolation, putting themselves or others at risk.

"Once our judgment becomes impaired, if we become intoxicated, I think that may be creating additional risks for us contacting the virus that we might not otherwise take," said Dr. Robert Mann, a scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto.

Some substance use and addiction experts say people under the influence could be more likely to ignore public health directives around physical isolation, putting themselves or others at risk. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Alcohol use by Canadians already comes at a huge cost to the health-care system, courts and the economy — $14.8 billion a year, according to a major study by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

"So if this turns out to be a very wet apocalypse, we might wake up with a very real hangover when it comes to costs for government," said Paradis, the centre's senior research and policy analyst.

Drinking to combat anxiety

Pandemic stress and anxiety are already driving growth in online support services.

In the past two weeks, the Virtual Mental Health Program at CAMH in Toronto has trained approximately 400 clinicians and residents to use what's known as virtual health programs — counselling services run via video conference or telephone.

Many people are tapping into online support groups to cope with the effects of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Dave Seglins/CBC)

Some people in recovery for addiction, whose regular support meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous are shuttered due to COVID-19, are turning to online support meetings.

Laura McKowen, a former heavy drinker and author of We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life, has launched online video town hall meetings five days a week, attracting 250 to 300 people at a time from around the world, including Canadians.

"People largely drink to combat anxiety. And whether you are sober or not sober, anxiety is up," McKowen told CBC News.

"A lot of people are just at home. They have too much time. They are out of their routines and can't go to the gym. They can't do the normal things that they would do to cope."

WATCH | Hundreds log on to sobriety town halls: 

Hundreds log on to video sobriety town halls

4 years ago
Duration 7:06
Featured VideoVideo meetings offer community for people struggling with alcohol, isolation, says author/host Laura McKowen.

She's encountered people who are relapsing during this crisis, she said, but also first-timers logging on to seek support.

"I didn't really realize how much we need community right now," she said. "Not Instagram and Facebook groups. Now we need to see faces and hear voices. So that's been really interesting to me." 

Dowsett Johnston said as people spend their days in isolation to avoid COVID-19, it is a perfect time for Canadians to take stock and examine their own drinking behaviours.

She says alcohol has become so woven into everyday life and culture that it's difficult to talk about it as a public health issue, despite the evidence it can be harmful and even fatal.

"It is almost impossible to talk about this without sounding like a prohibitionist," she said.

But the fact is, she said, alcohol causes more death in this country than any other drug.

"More people die from our favourite drug — and it is our favourite drug."

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