Protecting Yourself From Secondhand Drinking

Secondhand Drinking – what is it, and how does a person protect themselves from it?

What is secondhand drinking?

"secondhand drinking"

Secondhand drinking can be especially a problem for children who live in families with untreated alcohol abuse or alcoholism.

It is being on the receiving end of a person’s (family member, friend or stranger-on-the-street’s) drinking behaviors.

What are those drinking behaviors?

  • 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. [Speaking of getting a DUI. According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles website, a person weighing 110-129 lbs. and having 2 drinks in an hour will probably have a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of .08. A person weighing 130-149 lbs. and having 3 drinks in 2 hours will probably have a BAC of .08. And a person weighing 170-189 lbs. and having 4 drinks in 2 hours will also likely have a BAC of .08. A BAC of .08 will result in an arrest for a DUI/DWI. Additionally, even if a person only registers a BAC of .04, he/she can still be charged with a DUI – the charge is driving while impaired.]
  • Experiencing blackouts – fragmentary or complete; vomiting; passing out.
  • 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).
  • Binge drinking (defined as drinking 4 or more standard drinks on an occasion for women; 5 or more for men).

And what are the potential secondhand drinking impacts of these drinking behaviors?

Taking just the first three:

  • Being the person trying to defend oneself against the verbal attack that happens when you comment on how they are behaving or disagree with something they’ve said; something that made no sense or was offensive to you.
  • Believing them when they say they’re okay to drive and getting into the car and then finding yourself in the emergency room after they hit a parked car.
  • Taking responsibility for keeping them safe, monitoring them if they pass out, cleaning up their vomit.

So how do you protect yourself?

1. Understand that exceeding per occasion “normal” or “low-risk” drinking limits changes the way a person’s brain works. These limits are:

    • For women: 4 or more standard drinks (and sometimes, it is a whole lot less than 4 depending on her weight, any medications she’s taking, stage of brain development and other factors)
    • For men: 5 or more standard drinks (and sometimes, it’s a whole lot less than 5 depending on his weight, stage of brain development and other factors).

2.  Understand how the body processes alcohol – click here for the more complete explanation –  but basically, it takes the liver about one hour to process (rid the body of) the alcohol in one standard drink. Six drinks will take six hours and while it’s waiting its turn out the liver, it sits in the brain and impairs brain function, thereby changing a person’s behaviors.

3.  Know what’s in a standard drink. For example, 5 ounces of table wine = 12 ounces of regular beer = 1.5 ounces of vodka and other 80-proof hard liquor = ONE STANDARD DRINK. Many bar pours contain more than one standard drink. A margarita, for example, can contain 2-3.

By knowing the above, you can then appreciate that a person who exceeds these limits is incapable of behaving “normally,” so you will understand that you should not:

  • engage in the argument they insist on having
  • take to heart what they said or did
  • get in the car if they’re planning to drive
  • clean up their vomit (they can do it themselves the next morning)
  • engage in a fist fight if they try to start one
  • start making out with them, unless you want to and are comfortable with where things may progress if they press you further.

Above all, understand that ANYONE — from the first time drinker to the week-end binger to the daily, “just having a few,” to the alcoholic — ANYONE who drinks more than the brain and body can process can cause secondhand drinking.

P.S. when physical violence is also involved, that is more complicated and requires a safety plan — a topic not covered in this blog post.

©2011 Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of nine books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!", and is a national keynote speaker, consultant and founder of She has spent more than 12 years researching, writing, speaking and consulting on substance misuse prevention, intervention and treatment; mental illness; addiction as a brain disease; effective co-occurring disorders' treatment; secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family and related subjects – all centered around 21st century brain and addiction-related research. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

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