There is a plethora of research about the damage alcohol use causes to the mind, body, and personal life of the user. What is less studied, however, are the second-hand effects of alcohol use on people other than the drinker. One recent study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs attempted to remedy the lack of information in this area. This study found that approximately 53 million adults experience harm as a result of someone else’s drinking each year. When framed in this way, it seems alcohol use is a serious health risk for the general population, rather than only for those that drink in excess. With these new findings in mind, we can begin to think about addiction and substance abuse as problems that affect everyone, and collectively address the issue instead of isolating those that experience addiction.
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Types of Harm
One of the most well-known ways that people under the influence of alcohol can harm others is by drinking and driving. Every day, approximately 28 people die as a result of drinking and driving. The victim is often the sober driver that was not responsible for the crash. People with alcohol use disorder are more likely to drink and drive, even if they don’t set out to do so when their evenings begin. People struggling with alcohol addiction are also more likely to inflict harm on family members and spouses. This includes physical abuse as well as threats, harassment, and property damage.
The study mentioned above also found that the types of harm participants were most likely to experience as a result of someone else’s alcohol use depending on their gender. Women are more likely to experience harm from a spouse or family member within the home, while men are more likely to be victimized by a complete stranger. Women may be more likely to become victims of domestic abuse while men are more likely to be punched in a bar fight, but both incidents are often a result of another individual’s alcohol use.
People who live with someone who abuses alcohol are vulnerable to other types of harm as well. For example, a woman with a husband suffering from alcohol use disorder may run into financial trouble if he loses his job as a result of excessive drinking, or may encounter issues related to co-parenting and maintaining a fit home for her children. Additionally, women are more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone that is drinking than someone who is sober, both inside and outside the home. Less serious, but still problematic, are the many cases of vandalism that involve alcohol, including damage to cars and homes done by inebriated strangers that just happen to be walking by.
What Can We Do About It?
Addiction is often seen as a problem affecting only a small percentage of the population, and some may assume that people who suffer from addiction are in some way innately different than themselves. The truth is that addiction can happen to anyone and affects everyone. Alcohol abuse is an issue being faced by the whole of society, and by ignoring the problem and turning those with addictions into pariahs, we are only exacerbating the many ways in which alcohol addiction is hurting individuals, families, and uninvolved bystanders. The first step in reducing the harm done by alcohol use is recognizing that addiction is an illness and not a crime.
Some experts believe that, given the data regarding second-hand alcohol harm, we need to treat alcohol use as we would any public health crisis in our country. This means allocating funds to fight addiction while creating policies that help keep people safe. In the case of cigarettes, the product became highly taxed, and large national campaigns were run regularly informing the public of the dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke. If this same approach was taken against alcohol, it may have similar success in reducing consumption, lowering addiction rates, and protecting the general population.
Most recently, the government has instituted policies to combat the opioid crisis, another serious health issue. Unfortunately, due to how deeply ingrained alcohol is in our culture, and the normalization of its use at every event from corporate meetings to baby showers, policymakers seem less inclined to take on the serious threat of alcohol use. But the data doesn’t lie. Alcohol is harming every drinker and a large percentage of non-drinkers as well. By de-stigmatizing addiction and calling alcohol what it is—an extremely addictive drug—we can begin to inform drinkers about the risks they are taking every time they consume alcohol, and help lift people with addictions out of isolation and despair.