science of us

What Counts As Secondhand Drinking Damage?

Photo: Stefano Francini/EyeEm/Getty Images

Nearly 20 percent of adults in the United States are harmed by other people’s drinking each year, according to a new study that attempts to quantify the effects of secondhand drinking. I was excited by the idea that this statistic is being measured, and I shared it in a Slack channel with my colleagues. “Honestly, that seems low,” a colleague said. It did to me, too, given how easy it is to be thoughtless while drinking.

I was also curious: What counts as secondhand drinking damage? The dangers of secondhand smoke, by contrast, are relatively easy to quantify — secondhand smoke inhalation is linked to heart disease, lung disease, and stroke, and it results in more than 50,000 premature deaths each year in the United States alone.

But beyond being hit by a drunk driver or assaulted by someone on the sidewalk, I was wondering what qualifies as “secondhand harm” when it comes to alcohol.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, asked 8,750 survey participants to report whether they’d experienced any of the following ten drinking-related negative outcomes in the past year:

(a) being harassed, bothered, called names, or otherwise insulted; (b) feeling threatened or afraid; (c) having clothing or belongings ruined; (d) having house, car, or other property vandalized; (e) being pushed, hit, or assaulted; (f) being physically harmed; (g) being in a traffic accident; (h) being a passenger in a vehicle with a drunk driver; (i) having family problems or marriage difficulties; and (j) having financial trouble.

The researchers found that the likelihood of experiencing these forms of secondhand harm increased among younger people, increased among people who were themselves heavy drinkers, and increased if there was a heavy drinker at home. Being female was also associated with increased risk of financial and familial damage. The researchers recommend both “broad-based and targeted public health measures” highlighting these risk factors “to reduce alcohol’s secondhand harms” going forward.

I would have guessed something closer to 50 percent of the population being affected by secondhand drinking (and for women between 18 and 24, 43 percent did report experiencing at least one of the ten types of secondary harms), although I often forget how many people don’t drink very much. (In 2015, “only” 56 percent of the population reported drinking alcohol in the past month.) I remember I thought of my own drinking as purely selfish, harming no one but myself. I even imagined I was contributing to the economy, by spending so much money all the time. It would have been interesting to think about it as actively harming others, too.

What Counts As Secondhand Drinking Damage?