New Hampshire alcohol sales up 10% during pandemic, worrying advocates

  • The New Hampshire Liquor Commission is announcing plans to build a new NH Liquor & Wine Outlet in Concord at Exit 17 off I-93. The 12,000 square-foot Outlet, which will feature nearly 4,000 sizes and varieties of wines and spirits, will closely mirror the new NH Liquor & Wine Outlet in Warner (pictured here), which opened in July 2017.

Monitor staff
Published: 7/8/2020 4:03:32 PM

Alcohol sales in New Hampshire have increased by about 10% since the beginning of the pandemic compared to 2019, which is good for state revenues but may be an early indicator of an impending surge in substance abuse and addiction.  

Before the pandemic, healthcare providers had been hopeful that the rate of alcohol abuse was on the decline in New Hampshire — between 2018 and 2019, the percentage of adults who reported binge drinking at least once in a month declined from 20.7% to about 18%, according to 2019 data from the United Health Foundation. But quarantine posed a number of conditions that experts worry might exacerbate the problem, such as long periods of isolation, loss of jobs, and anxiety. 

Based on data from New Futures, a nonprofit health organization in New Hampshire, sales of 3-liter boxed wine were up 53%, sales of spirits and hard alcohol were up about 26% and sales of 24-packs of beer were up 24%, compared to the same period of time last year. Overall, New Hampshire made 22 million more sales compared to the same four-month period last year, according to the New Hampshire Liquor Commission. Alcohol sales in New Hampshire typically grow at 2.5% a year. 

Michele Merritt, the president of New Futures, said this is not the first time the state has seen a spike in alcohol sales following an economic recession. Shortly after the Great Recession of 2008, sales peaked followed by a surge of those in need of help for substance use disorders. 

“This has happened a number of times,” she said. “It’s no longer seen as a coincidence.” 

So far, the demand for substance use treatment has remained relatively constant. But Tym Rourke, the director of New Hampshire Tomorrow, said this doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. 

“The concern is not what happens two weeks later but what happens six months later or a year later,” he said. “Addiction is a disease that progresses. Once we reach a point where people seek treatment, it's already been going on for a while.”

Rourke said it is unclear whether the surge will include those who have never struggled with substance abuse before or if it will be those who were in treatment or recovery. If the trends from the beginning of the opioid epidemic are any indication, he said it will likely be both. 

E.J. Powers, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, said the state-run department has made a number of changes that could account for the increase in sales. For example, in March, the state introduced a promotional card program in which shoppers received a gift card after spending $150. He said many residents also stocked up on alcohol amidst COVID-19 concerns. 

Merritt said this explanation seems unlikely given that the increase in sales has sustained throughout the last four months.  

Restrictions on sales of alcohol at restaurants have relaxed during the pandemic, further worrying healthcare advocates. New Futures and other nonprofits are encouraging the state to allocate more funds for prevention, treatment, and recovery services in preparation for a surge. 

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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