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‘Secondhand’ harms from alcohol affect 53 million Americans each year, study finds

Photo by mnm.all on Unsplash
The National Safety Council estimates that 565 people will be killed on America’s roads this weekend and that 40 percent of those deaths will involve a drunk driver — the highest proportion among all major holidays.

‘Secondhand’ alcohol — the harm that alcohol causes to those other than the drinker — is a major public health problem in the United States, according to a study published this week in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Each year, one in five American adults — 53 million people — experiences harm as a result of someone else’s drinking, the study reports. That harm takes many forms, including verbal harassment, physical injuries, property damage, and family or financial problems.

“Given the impact on other people’s physical and mental health and quality of life, the societal costs of alcohol are estimated to be twice those incurred by drinkers to themselves,” the authors of the study write.

The findings underscore “the urgent need to reduce the burden of alcohol in the United States,” they add.

This research has particular resonance as we head into the July 4  holiday weekend, which is one of the deadliest times of the year for alcohol-related traffic fatalities. The National Safety Council estimates that 565 people will be killed on America’s roads this weekend and that 40 percent of those deaths will involve a drunk driver — the highest proportion among all major holidays.

More beer is sold during the Fourth of July holiday than at any other time of the year.

A pair of questionnaires

The current study, which was conducted by researchers at the Alcohol Research Group at the Public Health Institute in Emeryville, California, analyzed data collected from 8,750 American adults who participated in two alcohol-related national surveys in 2014 and 2015.

Fifty-nine percent of the participants were women. Slightly more than half (52 percent) were white, while 22 percent were black and 21 percent were Hispanic. The remainder of the participants identified their race/ethnicity as “other” or “multiracial.”

Half of the participants were employed, and one fourth of them were retired. Sixty-two percent reported education beyond high school, and 25 percent reported household incomes that placed them below the poverty line.

The surveys asked the participants if they had experienced any of 10 different types of harm within the past 12 months by someone who had been drinking. The harms included being harassed; feeling threatened or afraid; having belongings or property ruined or vandalized; being pushed, hit or assaulted; being physically harmed; being in a traffic accident; being a passenger in a vehicle with a drunk driver; having family or marriage difficulties; and having financial problems.

Key findings

The analysis revealed that one in five of the women (21 percent) and almost one in four of the men (23 percent) reported having experienced at least one of those harms within the previous year.  That’s 26 million women and 27 million men.

Younger adults (those under age 25) were the most likely to say they had been harmed by someone who had been drinking. The most common type of harm was harassment, which was reported by 16 percent of both men and women in the study.

The researchers also found that, compared with men, “women were significantly more likely to report family/financial harm, whereas men were more likely than women to report property being ruined/vandalized and physical aggression by someone who had been drinking.”

Women were also more likely to report harm — particularly physical harm — because of the drinking of a spouse, partner or ex-partner, while men were more likely to report harm because of a stranger’s drinking.

The reporting of harm did not differ by race or ethnicity among women, but it did so among men.  Black and Hispanic men, as well as those who identified their race as “other,” reported more harm from drinkers than white men.

Interestingly, women who were employed were more likely to say they’d been harmed by someone who had been drinking than women who were unemployed. But household income had no effect — among men or women — on the reporting of harm.

Limitations and implications

This research relied on the participants’ self-reports, and such reports can be biased. As the study’s authors point out, the participants’ perceptions of what harms can be attributed to another person’s drinking are “inherently subjective and transactional.”

In addition, the study did not include all the harms that might be experienced as the result of someone else’s drinking — such as having to take care of a person due to alcohol-related injuries or illness. And it asked people only about harms within a 12-month period.

Those limitations suggest that the study underestimates the negative effects of alcohol on people other than the drinker.

Still, the findings are sobering — and a reminder in the midst of the current opioid crisis that alcohol also takes a huge toll on American society.

In a commentary that accompanies the study, Dr. Timothy Naimi, a physician and alcohol epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center, urges policymakers to take action to protect people from alcohol’s secondhand harms, just as they have done to shield people from secondhand tobacco smoke.

Naimi specifically notes that  strong evidence has shown that raising taxes on alcohol is effective at reducing excessive consumption and the harms associated with it. Yet alcohol taxes are much lower (in inflation-adjusted terms) today than they were 30 years ago, he also points out.

“The freedom to drink alcohol must be counterbalanced by the freedom from being affected by others’ drinking in ways manifested as homicide, alcohol-related sexual assault, car crashes, domestic abuse, lost household wages and child neglect,” he writes.

FMI: You’ll find the study and the commentary on the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs’ website.

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