Each year, one in five adults — an estimated 53 million people — experience harm because of another person’s drinking, according to a new analysis of U.S. national survey data.
These harms, affecting around 21% of women and 23% of men, may 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.
Writing in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the study authors call alcohol’s harm to other people a “significant public health issue.” And they assert that, similar to how policymakers have addressed the effects of secondhand smoke in recent years, society also needs to combat the secondhand effects of alcohol.
“[T]he freedom to drink alcohol must be counterbalanced 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,” writes Timothy Naimi, M.D., M.P.H., of the Boston Medical Center in an accompanying commentary.
For the study, researchers from the Alcohol Research Group, a program of the Public Health Institute in Oakland, California, analyzed data of 8,750 respondents, ages 18 and older, from two telephone surveys conducted in 2015: the National Alcohol’s Harm to Others Survey and the National Alcohol Survey.
The findings show gender differences: 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. According to the authors, there is “considerable risk for women from heavy, often male, drinkers in the household and, for men, from drinkers outside their family.”
Additional factors, including age and the person’s own drinking habits, also made a difference. For example, individuals younger than age 25 had a higher risk of experiencing harm from someone else’s drinking.
Further, almost half of men and women who themselves were heavy drinkers said they had been harmed by someone else’s drinking. Even light or moderate drinkers faced two to three times the risk of harassment, threats, and driving-related harms 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.
The findings provide support for alcohol control policies, such as taxation and pricing to reduce alcohol’s harm to persons other than the drinker.
“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,” said study leader Madhabika B. Nayak, Ph.D.