Forget the ‘quarantini problem’ — research suggests we were drinking less during the pandemic


For the past 15 months, I’ve experienced a little cognitive dissonance over the issue of pandemic drinking or, as it’s also known, the “quarantini problem.”

Because I’ve been fortunate enough to have access to a lot of safe, distanced, outdoor get-togethers and I’m a firm believer in wine with dinner, I feel like my pandemic alcohol consumption is essentially unchanged.

Nearly everybody I know, though, tells me they’re drinking less than ever. Take Michelle Culligan, a flight attendant whom I first met in Peru, where we bonded over post-Machu Picchu beers and pisco sours. Although we don’t see each other often, since she’s often wining and dining on layovers in great cities around the world, we’ve stayed in touch. And I gathered from her social media she was down to about one drink every six weeks.

“Before COVID, I probably went out two to three times a week and had, oh, maybe five cocktails or shared a few bottles of wine with friends,” says Culligan, who confirmed she now averages about one drink every six weeks. “After the lockdown, there was nowhere to go and it was too cold to even hang out in the park. For me, drinking was always a social activity with friends — I don’t like to drink alone.”

Although this is all flimsy evidence (more about that later), I hear similar stories from many, if not most, of my friends. They consider themselves social drinkers and, of late, social drinking has been hard to come by.

Culligan says it wasn’t a difficult change. By the time patios reopened in midsummer 2020, Culligan had settled into a new routine and alcohol was no longer a mandatory accessory to social occasions, which could instead involve going for a walk.

“I just didn’t need it during the pandemic,” she says. “I never even went to the LCBO except once when I went for someone else because they were in quarantine.”

Throughout the pandemic, I kept wondering why my friends were all so different from the stories in the news, wherein Zoom happy hours, lineups at the LCBO and people learning to make cocktails at home were evidence that Canadians, especially women, were drinking too much. Stories ran in many outlets, such as the CBC, the Toronto Sun and Refinery 29, to point to a few.

So what’s the truth? Did we drink more? Or less? The same? Only now are we starting to get meaningful data and, so far, the evidence is not supporting the pandemic bender narrative. A Statistics Canada survey that came out in March found that some Canadians reported drinking more alcohol since the pandemic began, but an equal number reported cutting back.

Is it a wash then? It’s still hard to write the story in permanent ink and close the books, but a more recent McMaster University-led study suggests that, at least among young adults (18 to 25) in Ontario, alcohol use has decreased significantly over the past 15 months. And while this may look like good news, there’s plenty of bad news to counter it, since the study also found a significant spike in people experiencing mental health challenges.

“We saw significant increases in symptoms of depression and anxiety,” explains James MacKillop, Peter Boris Chair for Addictions Research at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and McMaster University, and a professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences. “And what was more important than just then the overall increases was that they were specific; either to females and/or individuals who experienced significant economic adverse consequences because of the pandemic. So I don’t want people to think that our findings could be considered a simple ‘silver lining’ story, because it’s more complicated than that.”

MacKillop says the data are still being compiled and analyzed, but he won’t be surprised if, at the end of the day, we learn that alcohol consumption in Ontario was lower during the pandemic. Among many populations in Europe, similar patterns are emerging.

So why did everyone take up the quarantini bender story as objective truth?

“I think there was a lot of anecdotal reporting of spikes in drinking and there were editorials being written by experts in the field about how we need to be aware that there may be increased problems,” says MacKillop. “But there were relatively few actual empirical evaluations, and even fewer ones that looked at patterns from before the pandemic and compared them with patterns during the pandemic.”

That’s exactly what the McMaster-led “longitudinal” study did, incidentally. Underway long before COVID-19, researchers tracked young adults for years so they could establish a baseline and measure changes. Some of the polls that were used to support the stories mentioned above would publish findings that people reported a binge drinking episode but without any context.

And as to “soaring” retail alcohol sales, stories failed to mention that “on premise” alcohol sales (bar and restaurant sales, which represent a significant chunk of the big picture) were way down. The LCBO was, at first, the only game in town so no wonder it was lined up. One story pointed out that Canadians were reporting drinking more at home, according to a survey conducted in April 2020 — a period in which most of us were under stay-at-home orders.

These omissions are, as the kids say, problematic. Sure, it’s never a bad idea to remind people that alcohol can be a dangerous and destructive drug, but good arguments aren’t built on misrepresentation of fact. And the ink spilled fomenting a mini moral panic about mommy wine could have been applied to other destructive forces, such as economic insecurity, systemic inequality and a lack of access to child care, to name a few of many structural problems that contributed to poor mental health outcomes during the pandemic.

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Old habits die hard and we’ve been blaming alcohol for so many things for so long that it’s hard to stop now. Why? Hard to say but likely because, when it comes to public health, it’s a lot easier to point the finger at a person having a third glass of Pinot Grigio than it is to seriously address systemic inequality.

Even if, in hindsight, it looks like a lot of people actually called it quits after the second glass.





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