Hangover from liquor boom to stay long after pandemic ends

ANDREN JOHN BERNARDO, a 32-year-old stand-up comedian from Manila, has found himself drinking more amid a coronavirus pandemic.

“I drink every other day,” he said by telephone, adding that he consumes as much as a bottle of local gin.

Before the pandemic, Mr. Bernardo, like many other drinkers, got his fix by visiting bars. He had to improvise after many local governments banned liquor in the first few months of a coronavirus lockdown.

“I didn’t handle it well at the start,” he said of his inability to drink. “I got more irritable. I ordered booze online during the liquor ban, thinking they wouldn’t check.”

“My Grab driver was apprehended. It was my fault,” he added.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced people all over the world to change drinking habits, shifting places of consumption from bars and restaurants to home.

“For many people, alcohol is part of their social life, a life that has been significantly disrupted by COVID-19,” the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said in a report published in May.

The crisis intensified some of the harms and problems arising from harmful alcohol use, it said.

Alcohol sales increased by as much as 5% in Germany, the United Kingdom and United States in 2020 from a year earlier, the OECD said. Sales of alcohol in bars and restaurants plummeted, severely affecting the sector, while sales through e-commerce and retail stores grew significantly.

In the US, online sales increased by more than threefold.

In the Philippines, household spending on alcoholic beverages and tobacco rose by fourfold to P226.5 billion last year, according to Statista.

Brick-and-mortar global alcohol dollar sales rose by 21% during the seven-week COVID-19 period ended April 18, 2020, while online alcohol sales skyrocketed by more than threefold from a year earlier, according to a Nielsen report last year.

“In fact, alcohol is the fastest-growing e-commerce department among consumer-packaged goods, and weekly growth has continued,” it added.

LIKE THE APOCALYPSE

Liquor.ph, an online liquor store, was supposed to put on several raucous events for their 2020 launch.

“Last year was supposed to be our coming out to the Philippines as the next big player in the alcohol distribution industry,” Liquor.ph Chief Executive Officer Frank Kona Shrope said in an e-mail.

But the pandemic put a damper on their plans, such as in-person tastings and other events. Liquor.ph sales, however, were “significantly higher” last year than in 2019 and “2021 is looking better,” he said.

“People were ordering more like it was the apocalypse in 2020, but things have normalized a bit. People are looking at online sellers more than ever though.”

Mr. Shrope cited changing patterns in alcohol consumption, with more consumers buying better brands.

People having to go out less frequently during the pandemic means they have more money to spend on liquor bottles, which means they can spend more on better-quality types of liquor, he said.

“The same thing has been said in other locations such as the UK, from talking to my friends in the industry around the world,” he added.

Mr. Bernardo, who had made references to his alcohol use in his comedy bits in a podcast, didn’t move up to other brands.

“Since money was an issue, especially during the height of the pandemic, I started drinking just gin bilog (a colloquial name for Ginebra San Miguel gin). It was the cheapest,” he said.

He did save a lot from drinking at home because he never had to get a Grab car, not to mention a bar drink costs a lot more.

The company behind Mr. Bernardo’s favorite booze, Ginebra San Miguel, Inc. started 2020 strong, with sales volumes growing by a record 29% in the first quarter from a year earlier, according to its financial report.

“This was driven by sustained brand equity of core brands Ginebra San Miguel and Vino Kulafu, and improved awareness of GSM Blue,” it said. High volumes brought net sales to P11.3 billion, 52% higher than year earlier.

While the alcohol boom has been an economic lifeline for many businesses, there could be serious consequences that linger long after the pandemic ends, according to health experts.

Mr. Bernardo said he started drinking as a “social thing.” “I wasn’t very good at talking to people. I felt uncomfortable in large crowds; this was from before I did stand-up. I drank. It made me feel a bit easier, a bit more relaxed, more social.”

Ernest Francis Nora, an addiction specialist and a psychiatrist, said people drink to socialize, escape problems or stress or just to enjoy the high from alcohol.

The extraordinary circumstances of a global pandemic might contribute to increased substance abuse, he said in an e-mailed reply to questions.

“Increased alcohol intake could be attributed to the anxiety brought about by the pandemic and the uncertainty and economic difficulties brought by the lockdown,” Mr. Nora said.

People may also start drinking because they’re bored.

“Some people cling to alcohol during crisis periods due to its amnesiac effect — it makes us forget,” he said. “Psychologically, it takes us back to the oral stage in terms of psychological development where some find it gratify-ing.”

Mr. Bernardo credits his increased alcohol use to social isolation.

“I lived alone in an apartment for most of 2020. I was going crazy,” he said. “I just felt really lonely. There was Zoom. There was Facebook. There were all of these social media sites that could help me, but I would go through days without talking to anyone, without opening my mouth.”

“I know it’s not healthy — dear God, I know it’s not. It just makes my loneliness feel like it doesn’t matter if I’m alone when I drink. Then I take another sip.”

Mr. Nora said too much alcohol leads to the early death of brain cells. “Addiction brings unhealthy habits such as poor diet, lack of sleep, no exercise and a devil-may-care attitude, further compromising our health.”

There should be alternatives to curb stress, anxiety and depression that don’t involve pouring and sipping, the doctor said.

“Socialize — but in healthier ways like Bible classes, exercise, bike or car groups,” he said. “If you feel stress from the pandemic, don’t be afraid to consult a mental health professional, or call the government hotlines. It’s free.”

Thinking about the reasons that made him drink more during the pandemic, Mr. Bernardo said: “I’m going to hug each and every one of the people I know. I’m never going to take for granted social interaction ever again. Everyone in this pandemic noticed that they’re not as introverted as they seem.”

He has a piece of advice for people who drink. “Everything should be in moderation. Too much of anything is bad for you. Like water. Ask people who drown.”

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