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Poll: Alcohol consumption in Finland remains steady despite pandemic

Nearly 80 percent of respondents said they continue to consume as much booze during the crisis as they did before.

Alkon myymälän sisällä pulloja hyllyissä. Miesasiakas tummansinisessä toppatakissa ja musta pipo päässä on juuri astunut kameran takaa kuvaan reippaasti kävellen hyllyjen välistä käytävää pitkin. Miehen liike on tallentunut epäterävänä.
Customers appear to be choosing box beverages over sparkling wines. Image: Retu Liikanen / Yle

Social distancing and stay-at-home guidelines have not significantly affected alcohol consumption in Finland, according to a new survey by pollster Taloustutkimus for Yle.

Seventy-seven percent of just over 1,000 respondents said that their alcohol use had not changed during the novel coronavirus crisis. Just 15 percent said that they have been drinking noticeably or somewhat less than before emergency measures kicked in in March.

On the other hand, six percent of respondents said that they had been drinking somewhat more, while one percent admitted to drinking significantly more. The latter groups are the individuals that experts worry about, given that there are fewer external social controls when people stay at home.

Without even being aware of it, many people may turn to the bottle to better manage their emotions, to relieve work-related stress or anxiety or as a reward for good performance. On top of that the coronavirus pandemic may create its own stresses, prompting some people to imbibe more, one expert noted.

Kaarlo Simojoki, chief medical officer and CEO of the substance abuse and mental health non-profit A-Clinic (A-klinikka in Finnish) noted that people don't need to drink large numbers of alcoholic beverages every week to be at a reasonable risk or problem usage. For women, the reasonable risk limit is seven units of alcohol per week while for men it is 13.

"If, for example, a person is used to having a daily glass of wine and because of this is having two, that's double the amount."

Mild inebriation easily overlooked

Simojoki said that it is well known that Finland has problems with excessive alcohol consumption, but the problems associated with continuous mild inebriation are more subtle and can easily be overlooked.

He said that the consequences could include greater inability to sleep at night, mood swings or other signs of psychological deterioration, rising blood pressure and weight gain.

"If you're working remotely for two to three months and your alcohol usage doubles, then after that some will be able to cut down, but others won't. We get used to [new] behaviours and develop a tolerance for alcohol. The thousand-euro question is how many people will this happen to?"

Eight percent of people in Finland exceed the threshold for a reasonable risk of alcohol abuse, while five percent cross the threshold to a high level of risk. Men who drink more than 23 units weekly are considered to be high-risk, while the corresponding level for women in that category is more than 12 units.

"I am worried that some low-risk users will move on to be at moderate or even high risk. And that's not even mentioning those at high risk who will clearly become problem users," Simojoki commented.

The NGO head said that it has been noted that alcohol use rises during telecommunting when people have problems controlling their drinking otherwise. He added that people should have continuous access to support, especially during the crisis.

Curbs on gatherings affect Alko sales

State-owned hard liquor monopoly retailer Alko reported a steady stream of customers ahead of the Easter holiday weekend, but said there were no crowds as customers were being advised to maintain a safe distance from others.

Easter is one of Alko's high seasons. Alko business director Kari Pennanen said that this year's lack of public events and curbs on gatherings have limited sales. On the other hand, he noted that travel restrictions mean that Alko is not competing with booze cruises to Tallinn or other cheaper destinations.

"Customer numbers in March were lower than last year but on the other hand people have been buying slightly more. However there hasn't been any hoarding," he continued, noting that customers appeared to prefer bag-in-box wines to sparkling wines.

Taloustutkimus interviewed 1,400 respondents during April for the survey. The margin of error is +/- 2.5 percentage points.

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