Preventing Health Impacts of Secondhand Drinking is Not About Prohibition

Lisa Frederiksen

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
  • unprotected, unwanted, unplanned sex, sexual assault
  • blackouts.

We rarely think of alcohol abuse (not to be confused with alcoholism)* as having serious consequences in the lives of others beyond the obvious – drunk driving, for example. But alcohol abuse (which is defined as heavy social drinking or repeated binge drinking) is so real and so harmful and can be so life changing for others as I’ve tried to express in the following images:

These kinds of worry, fear of the “what if ____,” anxiety-provoking thought loops are common for those who love someone who repeatedly drinks too much. They are a prime example of Secondhand Drinking. 



Exposure to chronic Secondhand Drinking is especially problematic for children. It is an example of childhood trauma – verbal, physical, emotional abuse; neglect. It actually changes how the brain’s neural networks wire. Childhood trauma is one of the 5 key risk factors for developing a substance abuse problem. 


Friends don’t cause Secondhand Drinking for Friends. Just imagine what a non-drunk friend would feel if she’d been unable to prevent any one of these scenarios playing out. Just imagine what kind of evening she’s had babysitting a drunk friend.

Preventing Secondhand Drinking is Not About Prohibition

Rather, it’s about taking a stand against drinking behaviors. It’s about sharing with a friend or parent or loved one when s/he is sober what it’s really like to be afraid of the consequences of their behaviors when drunk. It’s about asking them to take the time to understand what it means to drink normally (stay within “low-risk” drinking limits) and to do whatever it takes to change* their drinking patterns accordingly.

Briefly, “normal” or “low-risk” drinking limits are defined as:

  • No more than 7 standard drinks/week, with no more than 3 of the 7 in any one day for women.
  • No more than 14 standard drinks/week, with no more than 4 of the 14 in any one day for men.
  • A standard drink is defined as: 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of regular beer, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof ‘hard liquor,’ such as vodka, gin, bourbon or scotch.

Working to prevent Secondhand Drinking is about taking a stand for the quality of one’s own life and the lives of those we love.

To learn more about “normal” or “low-risk” drinking limits, numbers of drinks in standard alcoholic beverage containers, numbers of standard drinks in common cocktails and tips for cutting back, please visit Rethinking Drinking – NIAAA. This same website can also help the non-drinker better protect themselves from Secondhand Drinking by learning what normal, “low-risk” drinking is, how to count a person’s drinks and from that count, to know when to step away from the argument, offer to take a ride, or any one of the many other drinking behaviors that occur when a person drinks more than their brain and body can process.

*Note: alcohol abuse is NOT alcoholism. An alcoholic cannot drink any amount, ever, if s/he wants to stop the drinking behaviors that cause Secondhand Drinking impacts for others. A person who abuses alcohol but is not an alcoholic (someone who is addicted or dependent on alcohol) can learn to “re-drink” – meaning learn to keep drinking within the low-risk, normal drinking ranges described above. It’s not uncommon for alcohol abusers to elect not to drink any alcohol – this decision does not make them an alcoholic.


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