Numerous studies have examined the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on alcohol use changes in Europe, with concerns raised regarding increased use and related harms.
We synthesised observational studies published between 1 January 2020 and 31 September 2021 on self-reported changes in alcohol use associated with COVID-19. Electronic databases were searched for studies evaluating individual data from European general and clinical populations. We identified 646 reports, of which 56 general population studies were suitable for random-effects meta-analyses of proportional differences in alcohol use changes. Variations by time, sub-region and study quality were assessed in subsequent meta-regressions. Additional 16 reports identified were summarised narratively.
Compiling reports measuring changes in overall alcohol use, slightly more individuals indicated a decrease than an increase in their alcohol use during the pandemic [3.8%, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.00–7.6%]. Decreases were also reported more often than increases in drinking frequency (8.0%, 95% CI 2.7–13.2%), quantity consumed (12.2%, 95% CI 8.3–16.2%) and heavy episodic drinking (17.7%, 95% CI 13.6–21.8%). Among people with pre-existing high drinking levels/alcohol use disorder, high-level drinking patterns appear to have solidified or intensified.
Pandemic-related changes in alcohol use may be associated with pre-pandemic drinking levels. Increases among high-risk alcohol users are concerning, suggesting a need for ongoing monitoring and support from relevant health-care services.
Our findings suggest that more people reduced their alcohol use in Europe than increased it since the onset of the pandemic. However high-quality studies examining specific change mechanisms at the population level are lacking.