Why the World Health Organization Says Alcohol Sales Should Be Restricted During Lockdown

The organization's regional office in Europe is warning against overconsumption, among other health and safety issues during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of today, COVID-19 has been responsible for over 130,000 deaths worldwide—a number that would likely be significantly higher if not for stay-at-home orders around the globe. But this week, WHO's Regional Office for Europe issued a reminder: Don't avoid being one statistic just to end up being another. Specifically, while self-isolating to avoid coronavirus, don't become one of the 3 million people every year whose death is tied to alcohol. In fact, WHO/Europe went so far as to state that "access [to alcohol] should be restricted during lockdown."

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, we should really ask ourselves what risks we are taking in leaving people under lockdown in their homes with a substance that is harmful both in terms of their health and the effects of their behavior on others, including violence," Carina Ferreira-Borges, WHO/Europe's program manager for the alcohol and illicit drugs program, said in the news release. The announcement stated that alcohol consumption can compromise the immune system, increase risk-taking behaviors, and be detrimental to mental health—all of which are even more problematic during the current pandemic. As such, WHO/Europe said it "encourages governments to enforce measures which limit alcohol consumption."

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Regardless of how much you like alcohol (and working for Food & Wine, I like alcohol), to be fair to WHO, they are the World Health Organization, and alcohol can be a health hazard. You wouldn't expect them to suddenly be like, "Hey, we know alcohol is bad for you, but we're all bored right now, so drink up!" (You may recall, the WHO faced a similar backlash when it came down against bacon.)

Still, some places have decided to deem the sale of alcohol essential specifically because they worried not selling alcohol could be problematic. As an extreme example, Vice reported that, in the Indian state of Kerala, there was talk of offering medical passes for booze to people who were alcohol dependent. And in the United States, Pennsylvania opted to close all of its state-owned liquor stores, leading to problems in neighboring states. As CNN reports, Ohio and West Virginia have had to put additional restrictions on alcohol sales to keep Pennsylvanians from driving across the state line just for booze. "Any other time, we'd love to have visitors from PA, but right now this creates an unacceptable public health issue," Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine tweeted.

So, overall, yes, WHO would seem to have its heart in the right place, and WHO/Europe's message ended with a worthy point: The coronavirus pandemic is a good time for countries to be "communicating with the public about the risks of alcohol consumption, and maintaining and strengthening alcohol and drug services." Excessive alcohol intake due to these stressful circumstances is definitely a concern. But at the same time, dragging alcohol into the conversation at a time when some people are already struggling to follow the basic COVID-19 recommendations also seems like a messaging issue. As a result, WHO would seem to be a bit stuck between "on the rocks" and a hard place.

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