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Many turned to alcohol during early pandemic lockdown

After certain U.S. states introduced lockdowns and stay-at-home orders in March, 2020, there were anecdotal reports that people bought and consumed more alcohol than usual. However, data-driven research into whether this was the case produced mixed results.

Scientists at the University of Buffalo set out to clarify this situation by analyzing data on sales of alcohol in 16 U.S. states during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. They used monthly sales figures reported by the NIAAA for the period from March to June 2020, and compared these with sales in the same period in 2018 and 2019. In some states (but not all), separate sales figures were available for wine, beer and spirits. 

In addition, the researchers used anonymized mobility data from over 45 million smart mobile devices (mostly smartphones) indicating people’s visits to businesses where alcohol is sold. In this way they could assess any changes in the relationship between alcohol sales and people’s visits to businesses that sell alcohol. 

“Anonymized human mobility data and geospatial analysis help us understand how people’s visiting behavior to alcohol outlets changed during the stay-at-home period of COVID-19, and how such behavior change varied across different geographic regions,” says Yingjie Hu, PhD, an assistant professor of geography in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

“Understanding how alcohol purchase behavior is changed by events such as COVID is important because heavy alcohol use is known to be associated with numerous social problems, especially within the home,” says Bria Quigley, PhD, research assistant professor of medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB and the UB Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions.

The results of the analyses showed that the overall sales of spirits and wine increased in the early months of the pandemic – by as much as 20–40 percent in some states. The sales of beer declined overall, compared to sales during the same period in previous years. Meanwhile, people’s visits to bars and pubs declined, but visits to liquor stores increased.

The trends did vary significantly between states. For example, while beer sales decreased in most states, they increased in Kansas, Arkansas and Texas. Furthermore, Texas, Kentucky and Virginia showed sustained increases in their sales of both spirits and wine, which the authors suggest “can be alarming signals for problematic alcohol use.”

“If data can provide information about geographic areas in which alcohol use increases during certain types of events such as during severe weather, high unemployment, or events such as the COVID pandemic, this information can be useful to help prepare law enforcement, medical professionals and substance use disorder treatment providers to address alcohol-related issues associated with such times,” said Quigley.

Machine-learning assessments in the study point to a significant shift in the relationship between alcohol sales data and visits to various alcohol outlets. The researchers suggest the possibility that people turned increasingly to online alcohol purchases or to panic buying of spirits and wine. More research will be necessary to understand the exact changes in people’s purchasing behavior. 

The research team notes that the study has some limitations: For example, many states were not included in the NIAAA dataset, and the human mobility data was not able to capture sales at places such as grocery stores, where sales of alcohol are mixed with sales of other items. 

Nevertheless, these results provide insights into the potential effects of lockdown policies on alcohol use and could inform future public health policies to address alcohol-related social issues, the researchers say.

The results of this study were published today in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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