Study: “Secondhand drinking” harms 1 in 5 Americans

Photo: AndreyCherkasov (iStock)

Once America better understood the risks of secondhand smoke, publicly lighting a cigarette—especially around children—came to be seen as almost an aggressive act. A study recently published in the Journal Of Alcohol And Drugs suggests “secondhand drinking” is its own social ill, causing harm to 20% of Americans annually.

Researchers from the Alcohol Research Group at the Public Health Institute in Emeryville, California, and the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences analyzed responses from 8,750 adult men and women surveyed in 2015. They found one in five respondents report experiencing harm within the last year because of someone else’s drinking. (Classified in the study as “alcohol’s harm to others” or AHTO, these negative effects are also referred to as secondhand drinking.) While the dangers of drunk driving and alcohol-involved domestic violence are sadly already apparent, this paper also included less commonly studied harms such as having family problems or marriage difficulties, financial troubles, feeling threatened or afraid, having clothing or belongings ruined, and more.

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Rates of secondhand-drinking harm varied based on demographics, with women more likely to report harm from a family member’s or spouse’s drinking and men more likely to report harm from a stranger’s drinking. Risks also increased (logically) when the survey respondent or someone else in the household was a heavy drinker. Authors noted that being black or of “other” ethnicity, being separated/widowed/divorced, and having a college education without a degree each carried a higher risk of physical-aggression harm from someone else’s drinking.

This may sound like yet another no-shit-Sherlock study about alcohol’s risks. But because public health policies and interventions are data-based, researchers need to quantify problems in order to create programs that solve them. And on an individual level, we’re all reminded that drinking alcohol is a choice that affects more than just our own bodies.

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About the author

Kate Bernot

Kate Bernot is managing editor at The Takeout and a certified beer judge.