Secondhand drinking. As strange as this sounds, it does exist! Of course, we all know of secondhand smoking and its devastating effects. Have you ever heard about secondhand drinking though?

Let us use the context of secondhand smoking to gain some clarity.

When people smoke, others around them inhale the smoke. Even though this passive smoking does not cause as much exposure as actively smoking, the effects are still dangerous. Secondhand smoke causes pneumonia, bronchitis, ear infections, trigger asthma attacks, and even cause cancers.

So, how similar is secondhand smoking to secondhand drinking? Let us talk about secondhand drinking, and how this might be similar, if at all.


What is Secondhand Drinking?

Alcohol use remains one of the world’s most significant health risks. Excessive drinking affects not just the drinker, but also family, friends, and society as a whole.

Secondhand drinking refers to the impacts on an individual brought about by someone’s drinking behaviors. As we know, alcohol causes a loss of inhibitions with associated actions that can be harmful to others.

Why does this happen? When people drink, the liver metabolizes alcohol. However, drinking alcohol faster than the liver can metabolize, causes the blood level of alcohol to increase. This high concentration of alcohol affects the brain leading to alcohol impairment, hence, drinking behaviors.

These drinking behaviors that occur as a result of excessive alcohol intake can present in many different ways. Some examples of these are:

  • Physical abuse/domestic violence
  • Verbal abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Marital issues
  • Sexual assault
  • Neglect
  • Bullying
  • Driving while intoxicated
  • Mood swings from being drunk and sober
  • Unruly behaviors at work and school

These behaviors usually occur under the influence of alcohol. This, however, does not make the effects on people around drinkers any easier. The consequence of secondhand drinking is a real struggle for many people.


What are the Effects of Secondhand Drinking

secondhand drinkingHow does secondhand drinking affect you? Quite a number of ways, it seems. Obviously, this will differ from one person to another.

The responses to the effects of secondhand drinking can be quite broad. Emotional problems are common, but physical symptoms can also occur! These issues can affect your mental wellbeing, physical health,  work/school, and life in general.



Responses to the behaviors of people who drink excessively include:

  1. Mental illness such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety
  2. Difficulty sleeping
  3. Emotional disconnection from relationships
  4. Mental retreat
  5. Chronic headaches
  6. Chronic pain
  7. Constant fear and the feeling of “walking on eggshells.”
  8. Irritability and Anger
  9. Isolation
  10. A flare-up of other medical problems
  11. Stress

As you can see, both the drinker and the people around the drinker suffer as a result of alcohol consumption. This makes it essential for both parties to get help.

Some options for problem drinking include inpatient residential treatment, partial hospitalization program, intensive outpatient program, dual diagnosis treatment, outpatient mental health/addiction centers, therapy, and support groups. Also, some medications can help with recovery from alcohol addiction.


secondhand drinking

Secondhand drinking


Let’s talk about numbers. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs showed the following:

  • About one in five adult women (21%) experienced at least one effect of secondhand drinking in the past year.
  • Almost one in four adult men (23%) experienced at least one effect of secondhand drinking in the past year.
  • Each year, 53 million adults (26 million women, 27 million men) in the United States experience at least one effect of secondhand drinking.
  • The most frequent effects experienced are:
    • Harassment/threats
    • Property ruined/vandalism
    • Physical aggression
    • Driving related
    • Family/financial
  • Harassments and threats were the most prevalent for both men and women.
  • Women were more likely to report family/financial harm.
  • Men were more likely to report being ruined/vandalized and physical aggression.
  • Having a heavy drinker at home and a family history of heavy drinking increases the risk of harm.
  • Heavy drinking at home by both a man and a woman can increase the risk of interpersonal violence.

Another article points out the fact that approximately 90 million Americans experience secondhand drinking. Also, the ripple effect can be as much as three times the number of individuals directly affected by secondhand drinking.


Toxic Stress and Secondhand Drinking

AlcoholStress is the way the body responds to situations we perceive as challenges of threats. This reaction is normal but can become toxic when threatening situations happen all the time.

Toxic stress occurs when an individual’s fight-or-flight response is continually triggered. These stressful situations can be due to many adverse events, such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, and neglect. As we know, secondhand drinking can cause these, and as such, cause toxic stress.

The chronic activation of the stress response systems leads to the release of stress hormones in the body. It is these hormones that prepare the body to fight or flee. Unfortunately, when this continues for long periods, it can cause harmful effects on the body.

Some examples of adverse body changes from toxic stress are difficulty sleeping, anxiety, mood swings, tension headaches, muscle pain, increased heart rate, and poor concentration. As would be expected, these can cause long-term mental and physical health problems.


Who is at Risk for Secondhand Drinking?

The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs has an intriguing study on secondhand drinking. This study measures ten items in the last 12 months caused by someone who had been drinking. These measures are:

  1. being harassed, bothered, called names, or otherwise insulted
  2. feeling threatened or afraid
  3. having clothing or belongings ruined
  4. having house, car, or other property vandalized
  5. being pushed, hit, or assaulted
  6. physically harmed
  7. involved in a traffic accident
  8. being a passenger in a vehicle with a drunk driver
  9. having family problems or marriage difficulties
  10. having financial trouble

According to this study, victims are usually young and single. Also, women more frequently report financial and marital issues from other drinkers. Men, on the other hand, are likely to be passengers of drunk drivers and be physically abused by drinkers. In addition, low income and unemployment increase the risk of secondhand drinking.

People who drink alcohol are more likely to be exposed to other drinkers. As a result, this can make them more prone to assault from others who are intoxicated. It is not uncommon to hear about bar brawls.


The Ripple Effects of Secondhand Drinking

The effects of secondhand drinking are quite widespread. People directly affected are those in the immediate surroundings of problem drinkers. Such individuals include spouses/partners, children, parents, extended family members, friends, and colleagues.

What makes this more worrying is the ripple effect that occurs from these problem behaviors. Even though some people are directly affected, many more feel the impact in other ways. This includes law enforcement, churches, healthcare systems, and society as a whole.

To put things in perspective, consider a motor vehicle accident involving a drunk driver. There is involvement of the paramedics and law enforcement. The resulting traffic delay affects many people unrelated to the crash. Medical attention from the nearest hospital will involve a team of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. Of course, there is also the distress for both families from the parties in the accident. The ripple effect from a single episode which arises from drinking behaviors is more far-reaching than we realize.


What Can You Do About Secondhand Drinking?

The truth of the matter is, no one decides to become addicted to alcohol to create problems for people around them. At least, we hope that’s not the case! Unfortunately, drinking behaviors can cause a lot of issues. Not just for the drinker, but also family, friends, and colleagues.

Sadly, people exposed to secondhand drinking struggle and coping in the wrong way can occur. Such people may begin to drink themselves, use drugs, isolate, and perhaps, engage in other harmful coping mechanisms.

One essential step to help with secondhand drinking is education. This involves learning about alcohol addiction, as well as the effects of drinking behaviors. Armed with this knowledge, you are better able to practice self-care to keep yourself going.

Lisa Frederiksen wrote a book titled “If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!” This is an excellent book for anyone affected by someone’s drinking.

People with alcohol use disorder may refuse to get help, as many of them do not think they have a problem with drinking. An intervention from family and friends is sometimes necessary to get them on their recovery journey.

Ongoing support in the form of individual or group therapy helps people with drinking problems. It is also helpful for secondhand drinking victims. Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon are good support groups available for problem drinkers and their families.

Given the potential for a downward spiral, it is crucial for people exposed to secondhand drinking to get the necessary help for their mental health. It is helpful to get treatment for depression, anxiety, substance use, and other mental health issues.

Policies to help reduce alcohol use, such as taxation, reduced availability, and restricting advertising also have a role to play.



Secondhand drinking refers to the impacts on an individual brought about by someone’s drinking behaviors. Some examples of such acts are physical abuse, emotional abuse, bullying, and neglect. Also, driving intoxicated can have a ripple effect on the driver and victim, as well as their families, law enforcement, and the healthcare system. As such, secondhand drinking affects society as a whole.

Drinking excessively can affect family and friends in many ways. Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic headaches, isolation, difficulty sleeping, and toxic stress can occur.

Toxic stress occurs when an individual’s stress response system is continually triggered. This reaction causes the release of stress hormones into the body. Unfortunately, this can cause physical and mental health problems.

Each year, about 53 million adults in the United States experience at least one effect of secondhand drinking. Harassment/threats seem to be the most common effect. Even though the direct effects are huge, the ripple effects are even more staggering.

Because of the adverse effects of secondhand drinking, it is essential to make attempts to curtail it. Education about the impact of alcohol and secondhand drinking is important. Prioritizing the proper treatment of alcohol use disorder is crucial. Also, people affected by secondhand drinking should get the necessary support and help they need. Furthermore, policies to help reduce alcohol use and the effects of drinking behaviors will help with this problem.

Has your drinking negatively affected others around you? Perhaps, you have been on the receiving end and have experienced secondhand drinking yourself. Either way, it’ll be helpful to let others in on your experiences. Share this article and leave your comments below.