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July 2, 2019

Charted: The dangers of alcohol (even if you don't drink)

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on June 30, 2020.  

    An estimated 53 million U.S. adults in 2015 harm related to another individual's drinking, according to a study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

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    Study details

    For the study, researchers analyzed 2015 data from the 2015 National Alcohol's Harm to Others Survey and the 2015 National Alcohol Survey, which were conducted from April 2014 to June 2015. The surveys include responses from a total of 8,750 adult men and women ages 18 and older. The researchers asked each adult whether they had experienced harm in the past 12 months caused by an individual who had been drinking alcohol. The types of harm included in the study were:

    1. Drunk driving;
    2. Physical harm such as being pushed, hit, or assaulted;
    3. Traffic accidents;
    4. Financial problems;
    5. Emotional harm, such as feeling threatened or afraid;
    6. Personal property damage;
    7. Family or marital problems; and
    8. Vandalism.

    One of the study's limitations is that the data analyzed was self-reported and could be inaccurate.

    1 in 5 US adults experienced harm as a result of alcohol use in the past year, researchers find

    The researchers found 21% of women and 23% of men reported experiencing at least one type of harm related to an individual's alcohol use in the past year.

    Based on those findings, the researchers estimated about one-fifth of U.S. adults, or an estimated 26 million women and 27 million men, experienced at least one type of harm related to an individual's behavior when drinking alcohol in 2015.

    Broken down by type of harm, the researchers found the most common type of harm reported was harassment or threats:

    Katherine Karriker-Jaffe noted, "For women, the most prevalent are family and marital problems or financial problems due to someone else's drinking and a close third runner-up would be driving-related harms—so riding with a drunk driver or actually having a crash caused by someone who had been drinking." However, she said, "For men, the driving-related harms were the most common, followed by property damage and vandalism."

    The researchers found women were overall more likely than men to experience harm caused by a family member, partner, or spouse, while men were more likely to experience harm caused by a stranger.

    According to the study, young adults, or those under age 25, were most likely to report having experienced harm because of another person's drinking. The most common form was harassment or threats, reported by 31% of participants in that age group.

    Researcher says actual estimates much higher

    Karriker-Jaffe, one of the study's authors and a senior scientist with the Alcohol Research Group at the Public Health Institute, warned that the actual estimates of second hand alcohol-related harm are likely much higher than the researchers' 53 million estimate.

    She wrote, "One thing to think about with the one-in-five number is that it is only limited to a snapshot in time of about a year. So probably more people have actually been harmed by someone else's drinking at other times in their life."


    Aesoon Park, an associate professor of psychology at Syracuse University who was not involved in the study, called the study's findings "fascinating." Park said, "What is interesting about this study is that not only is it about alcohol use disorder, but it shows how the secondhand effect of alcohol is also affecting" adults between the ages of 18 and 25, who are "showing the highest rates of alcoholism" and experiencing the highest rates of secondhand harm due to another individual's drinking.

    Park said, "The second interesting part to this is the gender inequality," noting men are more likely to excessively drink than women, "so [the study] highlights a gender inequality of the secondhand effect of alcohol."

    Timothy Naimi, a physician and alcohol epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center in Massachusetts, in an editorial published with the study wrote, "The underreporting of harms among some individual respondents, coupled with the fact that previous harm leaves some portion of the population unable or less likely to participate in surveys because of premature death, injury, or psychological distress, suggests that even this robust prevalence is likely an underestimate." He continued, "This is an emerging area of investigation in its relative infancy and is one that needs nurturing and growth. Prevention of secondhand effects from others' drinking at the population level must be driven by structural, environmental interventions that reduce excessive drinking" (Howard, CNN, 7/1; Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, release, 7/1; Nayak et al., Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, May 2019).

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