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Women in child-caring roles reported drinking more during COVID-19 pandemic

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By Rachel Clun and Dana McCauley

Women reported a substantially larger increase in their drinking habits during the COVID-19 pandemic than men as they took on increased childcare duties.

It comes as the World Health Organisation warns against drinking alcohol during the crisis, saying consumption increases the risk of coronavirus infection.

But a longitudinal study of more than 3200 people published on Wednesday found Australians reported drinking more during the pandemic than two to three years previously.

The peer-reviewed report, conducted by the Australian National University with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, found in May 22.8 per cent of women reported an increase in drinking since the start of COVID-19, and 17.9 per cent of men reported an increase.

Co-author Professor Nicholas Biddle, from the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, said men and women reported different factors in their increased alcohol intake.

“For males a strong predictor for increased drinking was because of a loss of job or decline in working hours. For females a strong predictor for increased drinking was having a child-caring role,” he said.

Women reported their amount of housework, looking after children or other people increased from 18.6 per cent to 20.9 per cent between February and April, while for men it increased from 4.1 per cent to 5.9 per cent.

Professor Biddle said women’s reported higher rate of caring has a stronger association with increased drinking. He said for both men and women, particularly men, psychological distress was also a major factor.

Alcohol sales have not been dampened by the pandemic, according to the latest liquor retailing industry report from IBIS World released in May.

Panic buying in March caused an “unprecedented” 40 per cent spike in booze sales, the IBIS World report said, followed by a 36 per cent fall in April, bringing sales for the month 15 per cent below April 2019 levels. Total alcohol consumption was expected to increase by 16 per cent in 2019-20.

Director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, Professor Michael Farrell, said people may have started drinking more because they were at home with less structure, and increased anxiety and uncertainty.

“There’s no surprise that it’s gone up in the short term, it’s also clear that people who might have some vulnerability might be more exposed,” he said.

The WHO said there were other harmful impacts of drinking that people should consider.

“Alcohol consumption is associated with a range of communicable and non-communicable diseases and mental health disorders, which can make a person more vulnerable to COVID-19,” WHO’s regional office for Europe wrote.

“In particular, alcohol compromises the body’s immune system and increases the risk of adverse health outcomes.”

The main issue with the increase in drinking as highlighted by the ANU survey, Professor Biddle said, was the strong link between mental health change and alcohol consumption. He said the relationship between stress and anxiety and drinking meant there was the potential for unhealthy drinking to become entrenched if those issues do not diminish.

Professor Farrell said the pandemic had created a “highly stressful environment”, and he suspected a lot of the increased drinking would self correct over time.

“I can’t obviously confidently predict that, obviously, there will be some people who will get into more substantial trouble … [and] there will be some people who develop a level of problem that will require some level of additional support,” he said.

Professor Farrell said it was important to be wary about self-reported data and people’s capacity to monitor changes in their behaviour.

Professor Biddle said in general people were more likely to say they were drinking less rather than more in those types of surveys.

“Even so, we found self-reported increases in alcohol consumption were larger than in surveys prior to COVID-19,” he said.

He said the results of ANU’s survey were compared to the larger National Health Survey and the National Drug Strategy Household Survey from previous years and found the data lined up closely.

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