Each year, one in five adults – estimated to reach 53 million people in the US alone – experience harm because of someone else’s drinking. This is according to “Alcohol’s secondhand harms in the United States: New data on prevalence and risk factors”, research done by Nayak, M. B. Patterson, D. Wilsnack, S. C. Karriker-Jaffe, K. J. and Greenfield, T. K., and which appeared in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
This is why, according to the researchers, similar to how policymakers addressed the effects of secondhand smoke, society also needs to combat the secondhand effects of drinking because alcohol’s harm to others is “a significant public health issue.”
To conduct the study, researchers led by Nayak of the Alcohol Research Group, a program of the Public Health Institute in Oakland, California, analyzed data from two telephone surveys conducted in 2015 – the National Alcohol’s Harm to Others Survey and the National Alcohol Survey. The current research, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, looked at data from 8,750 respondents age 18 and older and provides support for alcohol control policies, such as taxation and pricing to reduce alcohol’s harm to persons other than the drinker.
According to the study, some 21% of women and 23% of men, an estimated 53 million adults, experienced harm because of someone else’s drinking in the last 12 months. These harms include: threats or harassment, ruined property or vandalism, physical aggression, harms related to driving, or financial or family problems. The most common harm was threats or harassment, reported by 16% of survey respondents.
The specific types of harm experienced differed by gender. Women were more likely to report financial and family problems, whereas ruined property, vandalism, and physical aggression were more likely to be reported by men.
The researchers also cited additional factors, including age and the person’s own drinking. For instance, people younger than age 25 had a higher risk of experiencing harm from someone else’s drinking.
Also, almost half of men and women who themselves were heavy drinkers said they had been harmed by someone else’s drinking. Even people who drank but not heavily were at two to three times the risk of harassment, threats, and driving-related harm compared with abstainers. Heavy drinking was defined as drinking five or more drinks at a time for men or four or more drinks for women at least monthly.
It is worth noting that members of sexual minority sectors have higher rates of polysubstance use/abuse.
“[T]he freedom to drink alcohol must be counter-balanced by the freedom from being afflicted by others’ drinking in ways manifested by homicide, alcohol-related sexual assault, car crashes, domestic abuse, lost household wages, and child neglect,” wrote Timothy Naimi, M.D., M.P.H., of the Boston Medical Center in an accompanying commentary.
Naimi advocates for increased taxes on alcoholic beverages, noting that there is strong evidence that increased alcohol taxes decrease excessive drinking and reduce the harms to people other than the drinker.
Nayak – the research’s lead author – agreed. “Control policies, such as alcohol pricing, taxation, reduced availability, and restricting advertising, may be the most effective ways to reduce not only alcohol consumption but also alcohol’s harm to persons other than the drinker,” she said.