Does alcohol and COVID-19 isolation mix? Some health experts don’t think so

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Long lines. The buyers, many of whom wore masks, stood two meters apart.

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

It would seem that the answer of many Canadians is yes.

As with sales of groceries, drugs and other products, sales of alcohol increased across the country in March, as people stocked up on bottles to prepare for long isolation during the COVID epidemic- 19.

Some addiction experts warn that these refrigerators and alcohol cabinets filled with hours of isolation in the home could lead to much higher consumption, even among Canadians who generally drink in moderation.

“I think what this crisis we are experiencing could have revealed is that, for a significant number of Canadians, alcohol is perhaps more essential to their lives than they thought,” said Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst. at the Canadian Center on Substance Abuse (CCSA), a non-governmental organization working to reduce the harms associated with alcohol and drugs.

Another concern expressed by some experts who spoke to CBC News is that Canadians – already identified by the World Health Organization as among the heaviest drinkers per capita in the developed world – could increasingly turn to alcohol to allay their fears and fears during the global crisis. .

WATCH | Paradis says that mixing alcohol and isolation carries potential risks:

Alcohol is perhaps more “essential” in our lives than we want to admit, says expert Catherine Paradis. 6:59

Like the Christmas rush

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

Some declined to provide specific figures, but all acknowledged an increase in sales as consumers bought wine, beer and spirits.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, overall alcohol sales jumped 36% in March compared to the same period last year. Liquor Express’s private stores, which remained open to traffic, saw a 70% increase in their activities. Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation stores went on pre-order and pickup sales only on March 21.

PEI In late March, the province experienced big queues when the province temporarily closed its provincially managed liquor stores, boosting sales at private points of sale by 244% in one week. .

In Quebec, a spokesperson for the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) compared it to the Christmas sales rush, while British Columbia. OTC sales jumped 40% in March compared with February, as volumes of alcohol, beer and bulk wine increased by more than 120%.

All provinces have adjusted their retail liquor operations to remain open to customers or offer pick-up or delivery options after declaring it an essential service, as have grocery stores and pharmacies.

This has sparked complaints from some liquor store workers who feared going to work during the epidemic.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford cited the concerns of people addicted to alcohol as the basis for classifying liquor stores as an essential service that must remain open during the pandemic. (Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press)

Premier of Ontario Doug Ford cited the concerns of alcohol addicts as the basis for keeping liquor stores open.

“I know there are people at home who wonder,” How does it work? “”, He said at a press conference last month. “Well, there are people who have addictions. We are here to help them. “

The province’s cannabis stores were also originally on the essential services list, but the Ford government changed its position last week and ordered them to close. Cannabis is still available online at the government-owned Ontario cannabis store.

Researchers say that while most Canadians are not addicted to alcohol, a small percentage of drinkers are so addicted that if liquor stores are closed, they could face severe withdrawal and possibly exert pressure extra on the overworked healthcare system.

Ann Dowsett Johnston, author of Drink: the intimate relationship between women and alcohol, explains that there are other reasons why the provinces have kept liquor stores open.

“No. 1 is a cash cow. Nobody wants to close it, ”she said.

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

“And the last thing you want to do is for the government to withdraw their alcohol,” she said.

“Alcohol is our way of relaxing, celebrating, rewarding and managing anxiety … and it’s a very anxious, very worried, very scared audience,” said Dowsett Johnston.

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

A list of liquor stores has 50 people in downtown Toronto as shoppers wait their turn. 1:09

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

He said he doesn’t consume more alcohol than usual when he’s locked up at home.

“In fact, I am doing more leisure, I cook more, I cook more, I help my girlfriend do her business,” he said.

Winchester Liao visits Toronto liquor stores almost daily as a “liquor runner” for the delivery company Runner, which has seen an increase in orders from people staying at home.

“Some are very careful and really scared [to go shopping] Said Liao.

Funny / not funny

Social media has been inundated with images, jokes and memes about all this alcohol storage, as people expect long weeks to come indoors.

But there is a darker side, warn drug addiction experts.

While clubs and bars are closed and social gatherings are canceled, with people who store alcohol at home – and many with more time on them as they are stuck inside – Paradis says that ” there is a risk of both increased consumption and predictable increase associated damage, such as domestic violence and neglect of children.

“There is a real risk that people will drink more often and more than usual,” said Paradis, who points out that studies have shown that the culture of drinking in Canada is built primarily around weekends and holidays.

“Right now, in this crisis, all of these borders are blurred,” she said. “So what does it mean when maybe every day looks like a Friday or a Saturday, or there is always an excuse for a drink, and you have alcohol in the house ? “

At this point, Paradis has no answer. She acknowledges that there is no data yet on the drinking habits of people in this unprecedented situation.

WATCH | Closing liquor stores was not an option, but we still need to talk about the risks of isolation and increased anxiety, says the author:

Alcohol, anxiety, isolation, “recipe for disaster” during the COVID-19 crisis. 6:10

Ann Dowsett Johnston says she is worried about what happens in isolated homes where children, when their school is closed, are exposed to excessive alcohol or alcohol consumption.

“I grew up in one of these houses and it is a very, very, very difficult place to live in as a child,” she said.

Costs of a “wet apocalypse”

Others who study addiction and drug addiction say that people under the influence may be more likely to ignore public health guidelines regarding physical isolation, putting themselves at risk or putting others at risk.

“Once our judgment is impaired, if we become addicted, I think it can create additional risks for us to contact the virus that we could not otherwise take,” said Dr. Robert Mann, a scientist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto.

Some addiction and drug addiction experts say that people under the influence may be more likely to ignore public health guidelines for physical isolation, to put themselves in danger, or to put others at risk. (Evan Mitsui / CBC)

Alcohol consumption by Canadians already has enormous costs for the health care system, the courts and the economy – $ 14.8 billion per year, according to a major study by the Canadian Center on Substance Abuse drug addiction.

“So if that turns out to be a very wet apocalypse, we could wake up with a real hangover when it comes to costs to government,” said Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at the center.

Drinking to fight anxiety

Pandemic stress and anxiety are already driving the growth of online helpdesks.

Over the past two weeks, CAMH’s virtual mental health program in Toronto has trained approximately 400 clinicians and residents to use so-called virtual health programs – counseling services by videoconference or telephone.

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

Many people recovering from drug addiction, whose regular support meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous are closed due to COVID-19, are turning to online support meetings.

Laura McKowen, former heavy drinker and author of We are the lucky ones: the surprising magic of a sober life, launched online video chat sessions five days a week, attracting 250 to 300 people from around the world, including many Canadians.

“A lot of people drink to fight anxiety. And whether you are sober or not, anxiety is on the rise, “McKowen told CBC News.

“Many people are right at home. They have too much time. They are out of their routines and cannot go to the gym. They cannot do the normal things they would do to cope. “

WATCH | Hundreds of people connect to town halls of sobriety:

Video conferences provide a community for people struggling with alcohol, isolation, says author / host Laura McKowen. 7:06

She has met people who relapse during this crisis, she said, but also beginners who connect to seek support.

“I didn’t really know how much we need the community right now,” she said. “Not the Instagram and Facebook groups. Now we have to see faces and hear voices. So it’s really interesting for me. “

Dowsett Johnston said that when people spend their days in isolation to avoid COVID-19, now is the perfect time for Canadians to take stock and examine their own drinking behaviors.

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

“It is almost impossible to talk about it without looking like a prohibitionist,” she said.

But the fact is, she says, that alcohol causes more deaths in this country than any other drug.

“More people are dying from our favorite drug – and it’s our favorite drug. “

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