Harm to others: Is alcohol just a private matter?

While we know that there are individual risks associated with consuming alcohol, such as acute injuries or chronic diseases such as liver cirrhosis, how often do we think about the impact that our own alcohol use has on those around us? Alcohol use has many potential negative secondhand effects including stress to relationships, impacts on other’s health and safety (e.g. on the roads, in the streets late at night, in the workplace), violence and property crime, developmental problems in children and substantial economic costs.  For example, in 2012 alone there were 17,888 alcohol-related violent crimes committed in BC.

Looking at the overall impact of all these second-hand effects of alcohol has been an important focus of research in recent years. When smoking was linked with cancer and people became aware of the effects of second hand smoke, we began to see major developments in tobacco policy designed to protect those affected by other people’s smoking. The same is true of changes to drinking and driving policies and to some degree initiatives to prevent Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)—when innocent people are harmed it gets people’s attention and this can pave the way for change.

While there is limited data on this specific to Canada, three Canadian studies conducted between 2004 and 2008 found that nearly one in three adults reported experiencing one or more types of harm resulting from someone else’s drinking in the past 12 months. In contrast, according to the Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey results for 2010, of those who drank alcohol in the past year fewer than one in ten reported experiencing any harm to self, showing that individuals are much more likely to be affected my others drinking than their own drinking.

Do we need to use a wider-lens when we think about the impact of alcohol use? Would social norms around alcohol use change significantly if we started taking harms to others more seriously? Many individuals are ‘responsible’ drinkers, but others are often not. Moreover, our level of responsibility declines as our level of consumption increases. Liquor laws help protect everyone, drinkers and non-drinkers and we need to carefully consider how access to cheap alcohol affects drinkers and non-drinkers alike.

Now probably the most important question is what can we do about harm to others? There are many specific measures to reduce these harms that can be applied in different contexts e.g. policing late-night drinking venuesdeterring impaired driving and also more general measures which target hazardous drinking in the whole population. CARBC research shows that while BC leads in some areas of alcohol policy it also lags well behind in others and, overall is only achieving half its potential for alcohol harm reduction – both for drinkers and those around them.

How important is it that we implement evidence-based policies that can reduce harm for everyone?


Authors: Kate Vallance (pictured), Kara Thompson, Ashley Wettlaufer