Alcohol consumption during COVID-19 significantly impacts vulnerable communities: The case study of Miller

by Andrew Reid

A national YouGov poll commissioned by The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) found one in five (20 percent) Australian households buying more alcohol than usual since the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia. Within these households, 70 percent are drinking more, with 34 percent drinking now daily. This is  likely to be a result of job loss, financial stress, family pressures, social isolation, declining mental health and a loss of structure and routine during the pandemic.

While we are waiting on further research and study results to uncover the full extent of the impact caused by alcohol consumption during COVID-19, it is highly likely those Australians who are already poor, unemployed or underemployed, with high levels of existing debt, suffering homelessness, or facing existing difficulties with access to health and social services, will be most affected. This is supported by available evidence that suggests disadvantaged communities have more significant alcohol-attributable harms compared with individuals from advantaged areas for given levels of alcohol consumption, even after accounting for different drinking patterns, obesity, and smoking status at the individual level.

Community profile of Miller

Miller is a suburb within the Liverpool Local Government Area (LGA). In 2016, Miller had a population of 3,237 people, an unemployment rate of 15.5% more than double that of NSW (6.3%), 3.9% of the population were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, 43.4% of Miller residents were in social housing, many with multiple and complex needs. Miller remains one of the most socio-economically disadvantaged suburbs in the state with the SEIFA Index of Relative Social Disadvantage (IRSD) score of 701 in 2016.

Alcohol Related Assault

Figure 1: Incidents of Alcohol Related Assault, July 2018 – June 2020, Miller

(Source: New South Wales Bureau of Crime and Research Statistics (BOCSAR), 2020)

The latest figures for incidents of alcohol-related assault from New South Wales (NSW) Bureau of Crime and Research Statistics (BOCSAR) show incidents of alcohol-related assault in Miller in May 2020 increased to 58.5 compared to 13 for NSW (see Figure 1). 

A breakdown of the data reveals incidents of alcohol-related assault (non-domestic assault) in Miller in May 2020 also increased to 58.5 compared to 4 for NSW. Compared to this time last year (May 2019), incidents of alcohol-related assault (non-domestic assault) in Miller was 0 compared to 8.5 for NSW

Incidents of Assault (Domestic Assault)

BOSCAR data for the same period (May 2020) showed incidents of assault (domestic assault) in Miller increased to 117 compared to 30.3 for NSW. While this may be due to several factors, existing evidence has found this could be linked to alcohol consumption. In 2010, research revealed alcohol was “present” in 41% of domestic assaults in NSW. Other studies since have found alcohol was involved in up to half of partner violence in Australia and 73% of partner physical assaults. The same studies also pointed out that alcohol features prominently in police data, although not all jurisdictions keep consistent records.    

Significant factor – access and availability of alcohol

There currently are 2 packaged liquor outlets and 1 hotel in Miller.

While the NSW Government COVID-19 restrictions forced the pubs and clubs to close between March 23, 2020 and 1 June 2020, Miller residents were still able to purchase alcohol from packaged liquor stores. The normal trading hours for one of these outlets in the area includes Monday to Saturday, 8:00am to 9:00pm and Sunday, 10:00am to 8:00pm. These alcohol outlets in Miller are in a Statistical Areas Level 1 (SA1) quadrant of approximately 280 households belonging to the lowest 1 percent of the most disadvantaged quantile in NSW.

In addition to this, Miller residents also had the option of buying alcohol online. In April 2020, Retail Drinks Australia reported one national retailer’s deliveries were up 300% from December 2019 to March 2020, while the size of the average order had increased by 50%. Around the same time, the Commonwealth Bank data showed a 34 percent increase in spending on alcohol over a week from March 27, 2020, compared to the same week in the previous year.

Despite no locally available data, Miller residents may be subject to the unsavoury and illegal delivery practices of some of the most popular online alcohol retailers in Australia. A study in January 2020, found 69 percent of these retailers advertised that they were willing to leave alcohol unattended at an address without verifying the purchaser’s age.

Conclusion

Alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to impact all Australians. However, it can potentially further affect vulnerable communities. More research is needed to understand the full extent of the impact on these communities. In the case of Miller, preliminary data shows alcohol has contributed to an increase in incidents of assaults (non-domestic) and, most likely, incidents of assault (domestic assault). Access and availability of alcohol is a major contributing factor. Therefore, there needs to be more action taken around managing the economic and physical availability of alcohol, as well as provision of support for disadvantaged communities. We must remember this is an avoidable burden on our communities.  Let’s act now before it is too late!