Alcohol sales in P.E.I. increased in 2020, even though the Island saw only a fraction of its regular visitors last year.
Bridge traffic was down 53 per cent, and air travel fell by 81 per cent compared to 2019. Despite that, alcohol sales increased by almost 1.5 per cent, which accounts for almost $2 million more in sales. The volume of alcohol purchased also went up in 2020 — by 314,532 litres.
"It does concern me," said Dr. David Sabapathy, deputy chief public health officer for P.E.I., when asked about the province's sales increase.
Before the pandemic, he said, more than 20,000 Islanders were consuming alcohol above the low-risk drinking guidelines — that's 10 to 15 drinks per week, depending on whether you're a man or a woman.
He's not surprised to hear alcohol sales continue to rise in P.E.I.
"Even before the pandemic, we had a good sense that alcohol consumption for Islanders was increasing. And so those numbers are really in line with that," said Sabapathy.
According to data from the P.E.I. Liquor Control Commission, beer and wine sales declined slightly in 2020, but sales of spirits increased by five per cent. Sales in the "ready to drink" category, which includes coolers, saw the biggest jump — up 48 per cent, compared to 2019.
P.E.I. Liquor Control Commission Sales
Sabapathy said data on alcohol consumption during the pandemic will take a couple years to gather and analyze. He noted that a recent study showed Atlantic Canadians weren't necessarily making more trips to the liquor store, just buying more alcohol per trip, as they worried the supply would run out because of COVID-19 manufacturing and transportation issues.
"Whether that translates into people holding onto the alcohol, or actually consuming the alcohol, would be what we need to understand more about," said Sabapathy.
He said when liquor stores were ordered closed early in the pandemic, it put a spotlight on how reliant some Islanders are on alcohol.
"A lot of issues around alcohol dependency surfaced, as well as the need to keep those stores open for people that needed alcohol available just to continue their daily lives."
63 new liquor licensees added
Officials with the P.E.I. Liquor Control Commission said that on account of the pandemic, some producers and food vendors were allowed to deliver alcohol to homes in 2020, adding to the number of PEILCC licensees.
"While implemented during COVID-19, these changes have proven to be beneficial to licence holders, and therefore, will continue post-pandemic," an official with PEILCC said in a statement to CBC News.
The change brought the number of licensees from 588 in 2019 to 651 in 2020.
A statement from the commission said that "social responsibility is at the heart of PEILCC." It was accompanied by a list of more than a dozen initiatives aimed at promoting responsible consumption, with information available in all stores, on social media, and on the PEILCC website.
Liquor sales up nationwide, says alcohol researcher
Tim Stockwell, a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR) at the University of Victoria, said data from Statistics Canada suggests a seven per cent increase in alcohol sales across the country during the pandemic.
Rates of harm are quite high on P.E.I. — Tim Stockwell
"It went up the greatest during the first lockdown. And then it went back a little bit. And we've got indications that the stronger the public health measures generally around Canada, the greater the increase," he said.
While the increase in sales is lower in P.E.I. than the national average, Stockwell said the province needs to do more to address liquor consumption.
His group researches Canadian alcohol consumption and related harms, and said policy changes could help to better understand and manage liquor consumption on P.E.I.
"Rates of harm are quite high on P.E.I.," said Stockwell, who said data from P.E.I. shows steady increases in consumption in the years leading up to the pandemic as well.
Stockwell said in 2017, P.E.I. experienced 127 deaths attributable to alcohol, "which is quite a lot for a small population, and nearly 700 hospital admissions caused by alcohol, with economic costs approaching $100 million in a year. So these are significant costs."
In the most recent Canadian Alcohol Policy Evaluation (CAPE), completed by CISUR in 2019, P.E.I. was one of five provinces and territories to receive a failing grade.
The Island scored low in marketing and advertising controls, health and safety messaging, and availability of alcohol. However, it scored high for impaired driving penalties, and monitoring alcohol consumption and harm indicators.
Health warnings sought
Stockwell would like to see health warning labels put on alcohol and more restrictions on where alcohol is sold. He said in order to receive a passing grade on the next round of the CAPE test, P.E.I. needs a strategy aimed at reducing alcohol consumption and harm.
Dr. Sabapathy said work is underway on an alcohol strategy for P.E.I., and consultation with community organizations has already been done, but he doesn't know when the strategy will be complete.
In the meantime, Sabapathy is pointing Islanders to Canada's low risk drinking guidelines for self-assessment and a list of supports for those struggling with addiction.
'A lot of people got very depressed'
Meanwhile, those who support people with addictions are working with them to make healthier choices.
"A lot of people got very depressed," said Sister Laura Kelly, who runs SAFE (Sober and Friendly Environment), an evening drop-in centre in Charlottetown for those looking to achieve or maintain sobriety.
"When you throw isolation, disconnection, uncertainty and fear into the mix for someone that doesn't know how to cope with those feelings, what kind of quells them is their substance," she said.
SAFE closed when the pandemic hit but reopened in June of 2020, and since then, Kelly said her team has worked hard to offer support despite public health restrictions.
They recently purchased some bicycles for clients to borrow, and are planning more daytime activities such as seed planting, beach trips, and book studies to encourage a healthy and sober lifestyle.
Any kind of connection is going to help people. — Sister Laura Kelly
"I think now I'm seeing people find hope in the midst of (the pandemic), as long as we continue to move out of it," said Kelly.
"I think hopefully more resources are also opening up. We're allowed to gather in higher numbers than we used to be able to, and that helps people. Any kind of connection is going to help people."
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