It is clear that the global pandemic has had an immediate impact on alcohol consumption in Aotearoa New Zealand, and that it represents a picture of both good and bad news.
During Level 4 lockdown and post lockdown Level 1, the Health Promotion Agency surveyed drinkers about their alcohol use. Among those who had consumed alcohol in the past four weeks, key findings showed that when compared to pre-lockdown:
increased their consumption
no change in consumption
decreased their consumption
During Level 4 lockdown
In Level 1
Key findings by ethnicity and age (when compared to prelockdown) showed:
- 22% of Māori drinkers increased their consumption in Level 4 lockdown. This prevalence did not decrease once lockdown ended (22% had also increased consumption at Level 1)
- 20% of Pasifika drinkers increased their consumption in Level 4 lockdown, halving to 10% at Level 1.
- 51% of 18-24 year olds decreased their consumption in Level 4 lockdown, and 26% at Level 1.
- 19% of 18-24 year olds increased their consumption in Level 4 lockdown, and 23% at Level 1.
Early findings show that 22% of Māori drinkers increased their consumption during Level 4 lockdown and this did not decrease following the end of lockdown
Across all study participants, reasons given for drinking more included: 1) it helps me relax/switch off, 2) I have been feeling stressed out/anxious, and 3) I have been bored.
Reasons given for drinking less included: 1) haven't been able to, or haven't wanted to, socialise as much or go out/visit the pub etc., 2) money/cost, 3) haven't wanted to go out and buy alcohol, 4) physical health reasons (e.g. weight, health condition, to be healthier), and 5) the lockdown period was a good time to reduce how much I drink and I want to continue drinking less.
It is imperative that we do everything we can to support Aotearoa New Zealanders who have maintained lower levels of drinking during, and after, Level 4 lockdown. This is the ‘good news’ of alcohol use during the global pandemic.
Some impacts of the pandemic on alcohol use will likely be immediate, whilst others will occur over a longer time period. The longer term impacts are believed to include a normalisation of home drinking, reinforcing or introducing drinking as a way to self-medicate symptoms of stress, anxiety, boredom and an increased prevalence of newly diagnosed patients with alcohol use disorders (as well as relapse among persons with a disorder) (see here, here, here, here, here).
Many people will use alcohol to cope with the on-going impacts of the pandemic. Research shows that individuals who drink for coping reasons are at a heightened risk of developing problems with alcohol. Depression and anxiety have been found to be associated with drinking to cope. Factors such as unemployment, time spent unemployed, redundancy, increased workloads and reduced workplace morale due to loss of staff are also likely to result in a heightened vulnerability to developing new, or exacerbating existing, alcohol-related problems.
The prevalence (%) of past-year drinking among the total population, 2019/20 NZ Health Survey.
By age-group (years)
By ethnic group (total response)
By neighbourhoood deprivation
In 2019/20, one in every five (20.9%) NZ adults (aged 15+) were classified as hazardous drinkers. This equates to 838,000 adults aged 15 years and over.
1 in every 5 New Zealand adults has a hazardous drinking pattern that places them and/or others at risk of harm
Males were 2.1 times more likely to be classified as hazardous drinkers as females (28.7% vs 13.6%). Click here to see the full results from the New Zealand Health Survey.
Note: ‘Hazardous drinking’ refers to an established alcohol drinking pattern that carries a risk of harming the drinker’s physical or mental health or having harmful social effects on the drinker or others. It is determined by using the World Health Organisation's AUDIT checklist - a score of 8 or more indicates hazardous drinking.
Comparison between subgroup (adjusted by age/sex/ethnic group):
The 2019/20 New Zealand Health Survey found that:
- Males were 2.1 times more likely to drink hazardously than females
- Māori males were 1.6 times more likely to drink hazardously than non-Māori males
- Māori females were 2.2 times more likely to drink hazardously than non-Māori females
- New Zealanders living in the most deprived neighbourhoods were 1.1 times more likely to drink hazardously than those in the least deprived
- Asian males were 79% less likely and Asian females were 85% less likely than non-Asian males and females to drink hazardously
Trends in hazardous drinking
Please note that due to changes in the NZ Health Survey, comparisons between years in hazardous drinking prevalence can only be done in the following time periods:
From 2006/07 to 2011/12, the proportion of adults classified as hazardous drinkers significantly decreased from 18.0% to 14.9%. Large reductions were noted in adolescents and young adults. By 2015/16, most of the positive reductions made between 2006/07 and 2011/12 had been lost (except among young people). Rather, many groups had a higher prevalence of hazardous drinking in 2015/16 than in 2006/07 (i.e. Māori women, European/other, middle-aged and older-aged adults).
Since 2015/16, the overall prevalence of hazardous drinking has stabilised in the overall population - from 20.8% in 2015/16 to 20.9% in 2019/20. There were significant increases in hazardous drinking were found among 15-17 years olds (from 6.3% in 208/19 to 11.6% in 2019/20) and among 45-54 year olds (22.1% in 2018/19 to 27.7% in 2019/20), but there need further surveys to determine if this is a real trend or random fluctuation.
An increasing proportion of hazardous drinkers are women
The proportion of all hazardous drinkers that are women increased from 28.5% in 2011/12 to 31.6% in 2015/16.
Significantly more Māori women were drinking hazardously in 2015/16 (29.4%) than in 2006/07 (24.2%). From 2015/16 and onwards, there have been no significant changes in hazardous drinking in Māori women in the past five years of comparable surveys (i.e. 2015/16, 2016/17, 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2019/20).
Trends over time, by age-group
By age, 15-34 years
From 2006/07 to 2011/12, large reductions in hazardous drinking were noted in adolescents (15-17 year olds) and young adults (18-24 year olds). Both groups maintained their lower levels of hazardous drinking. By 2015/16 the prevalence of hazardous drinking was significantly lower when compared to 2006/07.
In the he past four comparable surveys between 2015/16 and 2019/20, there were no significant changes in hazardous drinking in both age-groups, but the prevalence remain unacceptably high. In 2019/20, there was a significant increase in hazardous drinking among 15-17 year olds (from 6.3% in 208/19 to 11.6% in 2019/20). There need further surveys to determine if this is a real trend or random fluctuation.
Click this button for more information on TRENDS IN ADOLESCENT DRINKING.
35 years and over
Older groups moved in a different direction. Following declines in hazardous drinking between 2006/07 and 2011/12, the prevalence of hazardous drinking increased from 2011/12 to 2015/16. These increases were substantial among 45-54 years, 55-64 years and 65-74 years.
Therefore, all of the positive reductions in drinking that had been achieved between 2006/07 and 2011/12 were lost by 2015/16. Of particular concern, the level of increase was so great that some age groups (35-44yrs, 45-54yrs, 65-74yrs) had significantly higher levels of hazardous drinking in 2015/2016 than in 2006/07.
Click this button for more information on DRINKING TRENDS IN OLDER ADULTS
Trends in hazardous drinking have stabilised in the past five years of comparable surveys (i.e. 2015/16, 2016/17, 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2019/20), except for hazardous drinking among 45-54 year olds - there was a significant increase from 22.1% in 2018/19 to 27.7% in 2019/20. As mentioned previously, further surveys are required to determined if this is a real trend or random fluctuation.
Trends over time by ethnic groups and neighbourhood deprivation
Persistent inequities remain for Māori and deprived population. From 2006/07 to 2011/12, the proportion of hazardous drinkers decreased in most of the ethnic groups. By 2015/16, the positive reductions made between 2006/07 and 2011/12 had been lost. Hazardous drinking among Māori women significantly increased in 2015/16 when compared to 2006/07.
The ratio of inequity in hazardous drinking is the highest for Māori women and for women living in neighbourhoods with high deprivation (in comparison to the relevant reference group).
- Due to COVID-19, three months are missing from the data collection for the 2019/20 NZHS as data collection ceased on March 19, 2020. No adjustments or imputations have been done to account for the impact this has had on the results. The sample size for the 2019/20 NZHS was 9,699, with a 75% response rate.
- The Ministry of Health looked at the indicators over the past surveys to determine how many showed seasonal variation, and therefore caution to be applied to the results. Alcohol use in the total population did not show variation; this may reflect the AUDIT questions asking participants to recall behaviours over the past 12 months.
- The above statistics, from the annual NZ Health Survey 2019/20, are collected from July 2019 until late March 2020 (pre-COVID). For research on drinking patterns during and post-lockdown, please click here.
The prevalence (%) of hazardous drinking in the total population in 2019/20 is shown below:
By age-group (years)
By ethnic group (total response)
By neighbourhood deprivation
Alcohol causes more harm to the fetus than other drugs
It does not matter what type of alcohol is consumed, it immediately crosses into the baby’s bloodstream via the placenta and adversely impacts normal development.
Alcohol is recognised as the ‘heavy hitter’ causing more damage to the fetus than other recreational substances such as tobacco, methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine or marijuana.
There is no 'safe' level of alcohol use in pregnancy
Drinking to intoxication places a developing embryo and fetus at the greatest risk of harm. However, medical research has not been able to establish a safe amount that all pregnant women can drink and there are studies showing harm at very low level. Therefore, ther advice of many health authorities across the world is - Do not drink alcohol if you are pregnant, could be pregnant or when breastfeeding.
For more information, check out HPA's alcohol.org.nz website -
- Drinking advice for women who could be pregnant, are pregnant or are trying to get pregnant - https://www.alcohol.org.nz/alcohol-its-effects/alcohol-and-pregnancy/what-you-need-to-know
- Alcohol & pregnancy - https://www.alcohol.org.nz/alcohol-its-effects/alcohol-pregnancy
New Zealand has an FASD Action Plan
In 2016, the Government took steps to develop New Zealand’s first FASD Action Plan ‘Taking Action on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder 2016-2019 – An Action Plan’. (FASD Working Group 2016).
The Plan is a multiagency approach across health, justice, and social sectors to guide policy and service delivery within communities to prevent FASD and improve outcomes for those affected by it.
The plan targets early intervention with those thought to be at high-risk of drinking during pregnancy.
Changes to the drinking environment to reduce alcohol availability were not included in the plan. It is well-known that the wider drinking culture is a strong determinant of the prevalence of drinking during pregnancy. Therefore, we need to take a multi-pronged approach to reduce the harm from FASD.
Although improvements have been occurring regarding FASD diagnosis, children with significant learning and behaviour problems linked to prenatal alcohol exposure remain undiagnosed within our health services and ineligible for extra support. Families living with FASD remain ineligible for respite care.
Ministry of Education FASD Guide for teachers
The Ministry of Education have produced an Inclusive Education FASD Guide for teachers http://inclusive.tki.org.nz/guides/fasd/.
There are two important components in preventing the harm from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder:
- Preventing FASD by supporting alcohol-free pregnancies
- Enabling effective and appropriate care for persons affected by FASD
There is strong evidence that both components are essential in reducing harm from this preventable disability. Click below to learn more or click the button for the Health Promotion Agency infosheet.
On the spot - take action immediately
Stopping someone from getting behind the wheel after they’ve been drinking could save their life and the lives of innocent others.
If it is an emergency - call 111 and provide the details to emergency services.
If it is safe to do so, take their keys off them and offer to find them a safe ride home.
If the risk of drink driving is associated with a licensed premise - advise the licensee or duty manager of the risk and remind them of their duties to support safe transport options.
If the person has been drinking on a licensed premise and appears intoxicated then report the incident to the local licensing team and/or Police. See the Licensing section for more information.
Be a positive role model
Always drive sober and encourage members of your family/whanau to do likewise.
If you are hosting a family/whanau gathering or event, be a responsible host – e.g. make it alcohol-free, or have a range of alcohol-free options available, arrange a place for people to stay or a safe ride home if they’ve been drinking. See Places and Events for more information on planning events.
Spread the word
Take opportunities as they arise to discuss drink-driving, its risks and consequences with your family/whanau.
Develop some safety protocols/kawa with your family/whānau. These can focus on how to avoid the risks of drinking and driving, and having a plan to get home safely should that be necessary.
Start a group or if you are already part of a group or network you can plan initiatives to reduce drinking and driving in your community. For more information on doing this see Mobilising Others.
Assist people to get the help they need
If you have any concerns about someone you know who is drinking and driving assist them or their family to get professional help.
Help can be reached at your GP/local medical centre, school counsellor or local Community Alcohol and Drug Service.
The Alcohol and Drug Helpline is a useful starting point for anyone who has concerns about their own or others drinking. They will be able to support you towards the best course of action and local services including youth services - 0800 787 797.
Advocate to increase the number of random breath tests
To ensure our drink driving limits are effective, we need to enforce them. However, random breath test numbers have been declining substantially and we need to increase them to the point of one test per year per licensed driver. That would mean around 3 million tests per year. A lot more than what we are currently doing.
Speak to your local MP about this issue.
Change the wider environment to change our drinking culture
By reducing the amount of alcohol consumed, we can help reduce drink driving.
The most effective measures to reduce the amount we drink are listed below. Read each section to find out how you can take action on these environmental factors that support low-risk drinking.
You can mobilise others to:
New Zealand has a Vision Zero approach to road deaths - where no-one is killed or seriously injured in road crashes. This cannot be achieved without strong action on alcohol.
Drink driving doesn't just harm the driver - passengers and other road users (including pedestrians) are also killed or injured in alcohol-related road crashes.
Between 2017 and 2019, for every 100 alcohol or drug-impaired drivers or riders who died in road crashes, 27 of their passengers and 32 other road users died with them.
The risk of crashing increases with the amount of alcohol in the blood at the time of driving. Road traffic crashes involving alcohol are more likely to result in death or severe injuries.