Secondhand Drinking - Why Do People Tolerate It?

4 years ago

Lisa Frederiksen

There are three key reasons people tolerate secondhand drinking – the most common of which is not understanding the term. The others relate to a lack of awareness of the causes of secondhand drinking – namely alcohol misuse – and the reasons some people are able to reduce the amount they drink while others cannot.

Not Understanding What It Is – Secondhand Drinking Defined

Secondhand drinking is a term to describe the impacts on the person who is on the receiving end of another person’s drinking behaviors.

One of the key reasons people tolerate secondhand drinking is not know what it is.


Drinking Behaviors are the behaviors a person engages in as a result of excessive alcohol changing brain function. These brain changes are caused by a variety of drinking patterns ranging from binge drinking to heavy social drinking to alcohol abuse to alcoholism. These drinking behaviors include:

  • Fighting with friends or family about the drinking; saying or doing things you don’t remember or regret.
  • Driving while under the influence; getting a DUI (DWI); riding in a car driven by someone who has been drinking.
  • Experiencing blackouts – fragmentary or complete; vomiting; passing out – not remembering what was said or while under the
  • Doing poorly at work or school because of the drinking or recovering from the effects of drinking.
  • Having unplanned unwanted or unprotected sex; committing date rape.
  • Being admitted to the emergency room with a high Blood Alcohol Content (BAC), in addition to the “real” reason (e.g., broken arm, feel down the stairs, auto accident).

For more detailed examples of secondhand drinking, check out “Alcohol Awareness Month – 2013,” and for more information on the reasons for brain changes caused by excessive drinking, check out “Understand How the Body Processes Alcohol – Reduce Secondhand Drinking.”

Not Understanding What Causes Secondhand Drinking – Alcohol Misuse Explained

As stated above, it is a person’s drinking behaviors that cause secondhand drinking. And alcohol misuse is the cause of those drinking behaviors. It refers to drinking patterns that exceed low-risk or “normal” drinking limits. For women, these limits are defined as no more than 7 standard drinks in a week, with no more than 3 of the 7 on any one day; and for men, these limits are defined as no more than 14 standard drinks in a week, with no more than 4 of the 14 on any one day.

Alcohol misuse patterns include binge drinking, heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse and alcoholism. When it comes to causing secondhand drinking, the label doesn’t matter. The label does matter when trying to determine how one will change the drinking pattern, however (see next sub-section).

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has developed a single question to screen for “at-risk” drinking, which may be an indication of any of the alcohol misuse patterns described above because the individual is not staying within low-risk or “normal” drinking limits:

  • For women: How many times in the past year have you had 4 or more standard drinks on any day?
  • For men: How many times in the past year have you had 5 or more standard drinks on any day?
  • Standard drink is defined as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of regular beer and 1.5 ounces of 80 proof hard liquor.

An answer of once or more indicates “at-risk” drinking or alcohol misuse. To learn more about drinking patterns – including what is considered “low-risk” or “normal” drinking, visit NIAAA’s website, Rethinking Drinking.

Again, for the person on the receiving end of these behaviors, the label does not matter – whether it is binge drinking (defined as 4 or more standard drinks on an occasion for women and 5 or more for men), heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse or alcoholism. It’s all alcohol misuse and alcohol misuse changes behaviors because it changes the way the brain works.

Not Understanding When Drinking Patterns Cross the Line to Alcoholism – Which Requires Stopping Drinking Entirely vs Cutting Back

Although it’s all alcohol misuse when it comes to causing secondhand drinking, the labels do matter when it comes to changing a drinking pattern. An alcoholic, for example, cannot drink any amount of alcohol and treat their chronic, often relapsing brain disease, whereas an alcohol abuser may be able to learn to re-drink, to bring their drinking patterns within low-risk limits. These two short videos explain these distinctions: How Much is Too Much and Alcoholism is a Disease and It’s Not Alcohol Abuse.

Not understanding these differences often causes those on the receiving end of secondhand drinking to tolerate it for far, far too long. The longer it goes on, the more destructive it is to a person’s emotional and physical health. Check out “The Health Consequences of Secondhand Drinking.”

Secondhand Drinking is Real. It Hurts. And it Changes Lives.

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