Divided views on COVID-19 alcohol sales

The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and Retail Drinks Australia are again at loggerheads over COVID-19 alcohol sales figures.

On Friday, FARE released a statement detailing figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics which showed alcohol retail turnover increased $3.3 billion from 2019 to 2020, reaching $15.6 billion last year – an increase of 26.7 per cent.

The anti-alcohol group claimed that the “largely unregulated” marketing of the alcohol industry and online deliveries as the “driving forces” behind this growth.

FARE CEO Caterina Giorgi declared that the alcohol industry’s “predatory instincts” and drive for profit are affecting the health and wellbeing of Australian communities.

Retail Drinks, which represents the interests of Australia’s packaged retail liquor stores, retaliated, calling the anti-alcohol organisation’s report on the ABS statistics “alarmist and misleading” and argued that the anti-alcohol lobbyists “cherry-picked” the data.

Retail Drinks CEO Michael Waters said that FARE had “conveniently” ignored the massive decline in on-premises alcohol sales as venues were forced to close for “significant” periods of the year due to COVID-19 lockdowns.

Several self-reported surveys from FARE, the Alcohol and Drug Foundation and the Australian Health and Welfare Institute over the past 12 months have reported very different results, with the first two finding that overall alcohol consumption had increased, and the latter conversely that the numbers of Australians cutting down on alcohol consumption during the pandemic had increased.

However, a study in December by an academic and former contributor to the FARE online mouthpiece DrinkTank used ATO excise data to determine that there has been a net decrease in overall alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 lockdown.

This was corroborated by earlier analysis of credit card spending by the Commonwealth Bank which found that a 28 per cent increase in off-premise alcohol sales was not able to offset the decline in on-premise sales, which dipped 71 per cent.

Both media releases are posted below.

Media release from the Foundation of Alcohol Research and Education (FARE)

There is growing concern about the impact of increases in retail alcohol sales during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the influence of largely unregulated alcohol advertising. This was spotlighted in the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education’s report, Alcohol Retail During COVID-19, released today, which found that Australia registered its highest month ever for alcohol retailer turnover in December, close to an eyewatering $2 billion.

Recently released Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows alcohol retailer turnover in Australia increased by $3.3 billion from 2019 to 2020, reaching a record $15.6 billion in 2020 which represents an increase of 26.7 per cent.

The impact of lockdowns caused by the pandemic was felt across all states and territories, which has likely contributed to dramatic increases in alcohol retailer turnover, especially in Victoria where sales remained elevated over a nine-month period continuing from the first COVID-19 wave to the second.

Caterina Giorgi, CEO of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) said the data raises serious concerns about the role alcohol retailers played in aggressively advertising to Australians during a time of heightened anxiety in a pandemic.

“Alcohol companies have demonstrated their predatory instincts by aggressively marketing products during COVID-19 and this is resulting in big profits – but at what cost to the health and wellbeing of our families and communities?” she said.

“Action is needed from governments across the country to address marketing practices of alcohol corporations.

“It’s also time to look at placing limits on late night and rapid online alcohol product delivery and boost funding for alcohol and other drug services to help reduce alcohol-fuelled harm.

“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. The increase seen by alcohol retailers suggests it’s working for them.

“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.”

80% of alcohol sold in Australia was already takeaway and delivery before the pandemic and with a COVID-19 spike boosting levels to unprecedented territory, Giorgi is alarmed at what this will mean for hidden harm in the home.

“The pandemic has resulted in more alcohol going into the home than ever before and while that might be good news for alcohol industry executives, it’s certainly worrying news for our community’s health,” she added.

“We’re most worried about what this means for hidden harms in the home, which were already too high before the pandemic. We have a lot of work to do to improve this across our communities.

“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.”

In contrasting 2019 with 2020, all months significantly affected by the pandemic (March–December) experienced turnover increases. While these increases were normally around 30 per cent, turnover in the month of May rose by 46 per cent from May 2019, representing a $428.9 million increase. Retail giants Coles and Woolworths control 65 per cent of the total alcohol retail market.

Media Release from Retail Drinks Australia

Retail Drinks Australia (Retail Drinks) has today responded to alarmist and misleading claims from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) regarding growth in

takeaway alcohol sales in 2020.

Retail Drinks CEO Michael Waters refuted FARE’s claims highlighting the decline in alcohol sales across on-premises venues which had been closed due to various lockdowns throughout COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are extremely disappointed to see that FARE have simply cherry-picked sales figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and then used this data to paint an overly misleading and inaccurate picture of Australians’ drinking habits.

“What FARE have chosen to conveniently ignore is the fact is that takeaway alcohol sales grew in 2020 because on-premises venues such as pubs, clubs and restaurants were forced to close their doors for significant periods of the year due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Further, these on-premises venues were supported by governments with temporary exemptions permitting takeaway alcohol sales.

“The alarmist rhetoric from FARE is purely designed to create a false narrative around Australian alcohol consumption in an attempt to scare governments and policymakers into pursuing more restrictive alcohol-related policies.

“Far from the claims made by FARE, the recent ABS National Health Survey found a significant majority of Australians (85.6 per cent) have been drinking responsibly during the pandemic shut down, representing an improvement of 1.6 per cent since 2018.”

Waters also attacked FARE’s commentary attributing the growth in takeaway alcohol sales to irresponsible marketing practises by the industry.

“Any suggestion that the growth in takeaway alcohol sales is somehow a result of predatory marketing tactics by liquor retailers is a blatant falsehood and incredibly offensive.

“The retail liquor industry takes its commitment to responsible retailing very seriously, demonstrated through our various proactive industry responsibility initiatives, including Choose to DrinkWise, which encourages Australians to make more responsible choices around their alcohol purchasing habits and consumption.

“We are pleased to see more and more Australians enthusiastically embracing the message around responsible choices which is reflected in the fact that overall alcohol consumption across Australia is currently sitting at historic lows.”

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