Australians hit the bottle with gusto while at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, drinking an unprecedented amount of alcohol and bumping liquor sales to record levels.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows the country’s alcohol retailers turned over a record $15.6 billion in sales in 2020.
That’s an increase of 26.7 per cent or $3.3 billion more than in 2019.
In comparison, alcohol sales grew $195 million between 2018 and 2019 – about 6 per cent of the increase recorded between 2019 and 2020.
Predatory marketing during a time of heightened anxiety was to blame, Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education chief executive Caterina Giorgi said.
“During COVID-19 we’ve seen alcohol retailers and online delivery companies engage in prolific marketing that promotes using alcohol as a way to cope during the pandemic,” she said.
“The increase seen by alcohol retailers suggests it’s working.”
Sales spiked in all months affected by the pandemic but the biggest jump was in May, with turnover almost one-and-a-half times 2019 levels.
In December, alcohol retail stores – 65 per cent of which are owned by supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths – turned over almost $2 billion, making it the highest earning month in Australian history.
The whopping increase was great for retailers, Ms Giorgi said, but terrible for Australian health outcomes.
“Companies should not be able to use a global health crisis as an opportunity to sell more alcoholic products at the detriment of the health of Australians,” she said.
“We’ve heard from family violence services that they’ve seen an increase in alcohol involvement in family violence and also heard from alcohol and other drug treatment services that they’re seeing more people reach out for help with alcohol.”
But peak body Alcohol Beverages Australia argued the increase in alcohol retail turnover in 2020 was due to increased consumption of expensive premium drinks and zero-alcohol beverages.
They also pointed out that on-premises sales of alcohol at pubs, clubs, restaurants and cafes dropped off a cliff in 2020 due to lockdowns.
“The federal government has already forecast a slump with the most recent federal budget predicting a 15 per cent reduction in tax receipts from falling wine sales and 10 per cent reduction in beer sales in 2021-22,” Alcohol Beverages Australia chief executive Andrew Wilsmore said.
“Packaged liquor sales are a value number, rather than a direct indicator of volume.
“Australians have modified their drinking habits during COVID and are choosing to spend a little more on a premium product, or are conscious of their wellbeing which has seen the sales of zero-alcohol products more than double.”
Ms Giorgi called for limits on late night and rapid online alcohol delivery and for a boost in funding for alcohol and drug services to reduce alcohol-fuelled harm.
With the retail alcohol sector’s marketing largely unregulated, oversight was desperately needed, she said.
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