What Is Secondhand Drinking?

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You’ve probably heard the term “secondhand smoke,” which refers to environmental tobacco smoke accidentally inhaled by nonsmokers. Secondhand smoke is a dangerous hazard that causes a wide range of damaging health effects, and even death. But what about secondhand drinking?

Although alcohol can’t be absorbed through the environment, the negative impacts of alcohol abuse extend far beyond the alcoholic. For those closest to people struggling with alcohol use disorder, these secondhand effects can be just as serious as the effects of secondhand smoking.

What Is Secondhand Drinking?

The term “secondhand drinking” describes the negative impact of alcoholism on the family and friends of people with alcohol use disorder. Sometimes, these drinking behaviors also affect coworkers, law enforcement, and complete strangers.

Studies show that one in five adults in the United States—an estimated 53 million people—experience harm as a result of someone else’s drinking each year.

What Are the Effects of Secondhand Drinking?

secondhand drinking car accident
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

The effects of secondhand drinking can be physical, financial, and mental. In fact, ongoing exposure to others’ drinking behaviors can literally change an individual’s brain.

Specifically, the effects of secondhand drinking include abuse and harassment, financial issues, accidents, property damage, relationship problems, domestic violence, and the psychological consequences of growing up with an alcoholic parent.

Violence and Harassment

Drinking alcohol disrupts normal brain function, which may encourage aggression and violence. By impairing information processing, it can cause someone who is drinking to misread social cues and overreact to situations they perceive as threatening or insulting. Alcohol also weakens the mechanisms that normally prevent impulsive behaviors, including violence.

Alcohol is involved in 40 percent of violent crimes in the United States and half of sexual assaults on college campuses. Beyond campus, researchers estimate that alcohol use among all perpetrators of sexual assault ranges from 34 to 74 percent.

In one study, the most commonly reported harm from alcohol was threats and harassment (16% of respondents). While women were more likely to experience harm from someone in the household, men were more likely to experience alcohol-related harm from strangers.

Financial Issues

To start with, the cost of alcohol itself can be expensive. Heavy drinkers may spend thousands of extra dollars a year on alcoholic beverages.

Alcohol addiction can also lead to irresponsible financial management and unemployment. When one family member struggles financially, it can directly affect their partner and children. Other family members and close friends may find themselves frequently being asked to loan money as well.

Excessive drinking is even draining the U.S. economy. In 2010, the costs of excessive alcohol use totaled $249 billion. These costs stem from lost workplace productivity, healthcare expenses, law enforcement and criminal justice costs, and losses from alcohol-related car crashes.


In the United States, 29 people die in car crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver every day. In 2016, 28 percent of all traffic-related deaths in the U.S. involved alcohol, accounting for 10,497 preventable deaths. These traffic accidents not only cut short thousands of lives annually, they also profoundly impact the loved ones left behind.

Alcohol plays a role in other types of accidents as well, such as injuries to pedestrians and bicyclists, boat accidents and drowning, and burns.

Property Damage

Property damage and vandalism are among the secondhand effects of alcoholism most commonly reported by men.

The impaired information processing and impulse control that often lead to violence and aggression can also result in broken windows, slashed tires, and other types of vandalism. Of course, alcohol-related car crashes also cause property damage. And people affected by property damage experience stress and financial costs.

Relationship Issues

People who date alcoholics may be affected by reciprocal drinking, codependency, lower relationship satisfaction, and higher stress levels.

Alcohol abuse negatively impacts long-term relationships and marriages. Detachment and emotional unavailability, infidelity, and overall relationship dissatisfaction are all potential issues. Studies show higher rates of divorce in marriages where one person drinks heavily.

Domestic Violence

In the United States, up to 55% of victims of domestic violence believe their partners to have been drinking prior to a physical assault. Alcohol is also linked to increased psychological and emotional abuse.

There are several ways this can happen. By reducing impulse control, alcohol can make a person more likely to react violently or abusively to stressful situations. It can also make relationship tension more likely to begin with by increasing financial stress, childcare conflicts, or even infidelity. Finally, drinking is often used as an excuse for violent behavior.

Intimate partner violence can also lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Partners of alcoholics may end up repressing emotions, sacrificing their own well being, or going out of their way to please the alcoholic partner in hopes of “fixing” the problem. They may even begin self-medicating on their own to manage the stress.

Impacts on Children

child with fists up secondhand drinking
Photo by bady abbas on Unsplash

Children of alcoholic parents are among those most affected by secondhand drinking. Children of alcoholics commonly experience increased anxiety and depression, issues with self-esteem, guilt, embarrassment, anger, and a negative outlook on life. They are also more likely to choose alcoholic partners and to struggle with alcoholism themselves.

Having a parent who struggles with alcohol or drug addiction is identified as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). ACEs are linked to health problems, mental illness, and substance abuse in adulthood. They may also negatively affect education and job opportunities.

Other ACEs include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Having an incarcerated family member
  • Having a family member with a mental illness
  • Experiencing parental divorce, death, or abandonment

Unfortunately, all of these other ACES are more likely to occur in a home with an adult who drinks heavily. The more ACES a child experiences, the greater the risk of negative effects into adulthood. Chronic stress and trauma repeatedly activate the brain’s fight or flight stress response, causing developing brains to “wire” unhealthy protective behaviors and coping strategies.

Because high levels of trauma alter the brain, they also change behavior and can lead to a lifetime of physical, mental, and social difficulties. Trauma-impacted individuals commonly report anxiety, depression, feelings of inadequacy, people-pleasing behaviors, issues with sleep, and higher rates of a wide range of chronic illnesses.

How to Prevent the Effects of Secondhand Drinking

Drinking doesn’t only affect the drinker—it also impacts their partner, friends, family members, and especially their children.

It’s possible to prevent or mitigate some of the effects of secondhand drinking. For example, one can call a friend or take an Uber after a night of drinking. There are also support groups like Al-Anon for loved ones of alcoholics.

However, the most effective way to reduce the impact of secondhand drinking is to stop drinking or drink in moderation. Of course, changing long-term habits, especially those related to addiction, can be extremely challenging. It takes willpower, consistency, and support.

If you’d like to change your relationship to alcohol, both for yourself and the people you love, you have options. Complete abstinence isn’t a requirement, nor is inpatient addiction treatment. Ria Health offers a convenient, 100 percent online program for alcohol misuse.

As a Ria member, you set your own goals and we help you reach them. Our evidence-based program includes recovery coaching, medication for alcoholism, digital tracking tools, online support groups, and more. Best of all, it’s fully accessible from your smartphone. You can get support on your own schedule, from the comfort of home.

If you’re ready, take the first step for yourself and your loved ones today. Read more about how Ria Health works, or sign up for a free call with a member of our team.

Have questions about online alcohol treatment?

or call (800) 504-5360

Written By:
Ashley Cullins
Ashley Cullins is a writer with a passion for creating engaging, understandable content on complex topics like addiction and mental health. She has over five years of experience writing for healthcare websites and publications. Having experienced addiction first-hand in her family, Ashley deeply connects with Ria Health’s mission to make treatment easier and more accessible. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her daughter, reading, and cooking.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.

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