Study Examines Drinking’s “Secondhand” Effects

Every year, one in five adults in the United States experience harm as the result of someone else’s drinking.  As such, health experts now advise that it might be time to consider alcohol’s harm to other people as “a significant public health issue,” similar to secondhand smoke. 

By analyzing data from a US national survey, a new study says that 21 percent of women and 23 percent of men—for a total of about 53 million adults—were harmed from another person’s drinking in the past year. These “harms” could include direct effects like physical threats or harassment as well as secondary effects like property damage or vandalism. It could also include physical aggression, harms that result from impaired driving, or financial or family issues. 

The most common type of “secondhand” harm associated with drinking, reported by 16 percent of survey respondents, was threats or harassment. 

Now, it probably comes as no surprise that the specific types of harm experienced by those who participated in the survey varied according to gender.  Women, for example, were more likely to report financial issues or family problems. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to report vandalism, physical aggression, or property destruction. 

This in mind, the study authors assuage there is a “considerable risk for women from heavy, often male, drinkers in the household and, for men, from drinkers outside their family.”

On top of this, the study also observed that other factors may play a role.  Things like age and the person’s own drinking habits/abuse, are also, apparently, quite important.  For one, people under the age of 25 appear to be most at risk of harm from someone else’s drinking.  Also, nearly half of men and women who drink heavily, themselves, reported harm as a result from someone else’s drinking. Also, people who drink a light to moderate amount could be up to three times at risk for harassment, threats, and driving-related harm when compared with those who abstain from alcohol.  

Heavy drinking, in this study, has been defined as having at least five drinks in one sitting, for men, and at least four drinks in one session for women; at least once a month. 

The study was conducted by the Alcohol Research Group, which is a program of the Public Health Institute.  The researchers conclude that, perhaps, new control policies—like restrictive alcohol prices, higher taxes, reduced availability, etc—could be effective at reducing not just over-indulgence in alcohol, but the harm it could do.