“Secondhand Drinking – It’s as Real as Secondhand Smoke.
It’s what happens to those on the receiving end of a person’s drinking behaviors – like parental arguments rooted in excessive drinking.”


Secondhand drinking is term to describe the impacts on the person who is on the receiving end of another person’s drinking behaviors. Drinking behaviors include:

  • drunken arguments
  • crazy, convoluted accusations
  • verbal, physical or emotional abuse
  • driving while impaired, riding in a car with an impaired driver
  • blackouts.

amna begumSecondhand drinking / secondhand drugging is what happens to the person who must cope with the arguments, the verbal/physical or emotional abuse, the physical assault, the sexual assault, the behaviors that occur in a blackout, the accident caused when driving while impaired. They are the impacts another person experiences as a result of trying to cope with a person’s drinking / drugging behaviors, which are the behaviors a person engages in as a result of drinking or using a drug in quantities that exceed that which the body and brain can handle.

The social dynamics of secondhand smoke were entirely different.  Once it became common understanding that secondhand smoke was damaging to the health of others, that made smoking socially unacceptable.  Whereas in the past, smoking was thought to be sophisticated and chic, the secondhand smoke awareness made smoking seem akin to belching in public; socially unacceptable.  Whereas no one used to ask "Do you mind if I smoke?" that was the question smokers always had to ask.  This developing social stigma was a powerful incentive for millions of smokers to make quit attempts.

This brings us to alcohol. For overall mortality, total abstainers have elevated risk compared to moderate drinkers, whereas drinking beyond a moderate level quickly drives mortality risk to rise dramatically.  While alcohol in small amounts has some protective value for heart disease, stroke and diabetes, rising consumption brings increased risk for liver disease, highway injury, neurological damage and seizures, alcohol-related violence and suicide and damage to unborn children.  There is a huge array of other social and personal problems that come to the individual drinking alcohol excessively.

In general, we have not seen the concept of "secondhand" applied to alcohol.  Remember in this context, secondhand would mean consequences harming third parties, incidental to their being in the presence of drinkers.  It is clear that the analogy is useful and legitimate.  People are harmed by abusive drinking by others.  Binge and heavy drinkers are responsible for injury and death to other drivers and pedestrians.  Many acts of violence and suicide, if not caused by alcohol, are committed under the influence of alcohol, which is clearly a contributing factor.  There is a lot of vandalism and property damage done by intoxicated drinkers; this includes damage related to motor vehicle accidents as well as intentional vandalism of private and public property.  Alcohol abuse on university campuses makes the living circumstances such that most people in middle class neighborhoods would not tolerate.  This includes vomiting in people's cars and in public places, rowdy behavior disturbing sleep and study time.  Up until now, these secondhand alcohol effects have not generated a social attention. Especially with our younger generation, this behavior is accepted as normal. This acceptance is creating a toxic social environment for harmful alcohol use both on and off university campuses. People drink this way because there are no social consequences.

Secondhand alcohol effects are real. It remains a challenge for health promotion to design ways to change behaviours from destructive drinking to moderate levels. We continue to rely on education campaigns and policies to limit the harm. While educational programs have not shown much success, there are many policy solutions that could reduce alcohol related harms in our communities. It will take time to build a community readiness to accept and establish policy solutions. Attitudes which accept secondhand alcohol effects as normal are the same ones which are barriers to policy solutions.