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Study finds alcohol sales increased $2 million a day during first few months of COVID-19 pandemic

March 3, 2021

A new study from Sunnybrook and University of Toronto researchers is revealing a worrisome indirect consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers examining alcohol sales and alcohol-related emergencies throughout Ontario found alcohol purchases increased by more than $250 million (roughly $2 million a day) in the first four months of the pandemic compared to the same time in 2019, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

“This dramatic jump indicates that social isolation, financial strain, and anxiety caused by the pandemic may have led to increased alcohol use,” says Dr. Jonathan Zipursky, lead author, Clinical Pharmacologist at Sunnybrook and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. “Higher alcohol sales during the lockdown are concerning because alcohol consumption can cause poor judgment, medical complications and immune suppression. Alcohol can also potentially worsen COVID-19 illness.”

The researchers combined information on alcohol sales from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) and information on monthly alcohol-related emergency visits from the Ontario Ministry of Health from March to June 2020 to those in the corresponding months of 2019.

The study also found alcohol-related emergency department visits decreased marginally during the time period, although to a lesser extent than overall emergency department visits. “The harmful effects of alcohol are often delayed and increases in alcohol-related health care visits may be anticipated in the future,” says Dr. Donald Redelmeier, study co-author, Platform Director of the Evaluative Clinical Sciences Platform at Sunnybrook Research Institute and Professor of Medicine at University of Toronto's Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

The authors hope their research will highlight the issue among clinicians, the public and policy makers. “Our findings underscore a potentially under-recognized public health issue, spotlighting the importance of evaluating an individual’s pre-pandemic and pandemic alcohol consumption,” says Dr. Zipursky. “If you’ve noticed an increase in drinking for yourself or a family member, consider how excess drinking can be replaced with a healthier behaviour and speak to your health care provider.”

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