Preventing Secondhand Drinking Is Not About Prohibition

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:

Preventing Secondhand Drinking Is Not About Prohibition

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. (Click on Image to Enlarge or Share)



Preventing Secondhand Drinking Is Not About Prohibition

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. (Click on Image to Enlarge or Share)

Preventing Secondhand Drinking Is Not About Prohibition

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.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. 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.

26 Responses to Preventing Secondhand Drinking Is Not About Prohibition

  1. Thank you for always sharing such great information, Lisa. I didn’t know ” alcohol abuse is NOT alcoholism.” I do not drink but I do know someone who could benefit from reading this article. Bless you for all the help you provide.

    • I was surprised by that, myself, Alexandra. And I think it’s that piece that gets so many people into trouble – both the drinker and the non-drinker experiencing SHD because no one wants to label self or others an alcoholic so they tolerate the drinking behaviors in order to excuse the drinking. Thanks so much for your comment and compliment – very much appreciate both.

  2. Hi Lisa,

    Great information as always! Drinking can change someone’s personality and usually it’s not for the better. Good guidelines for all families. Communication is the key. People need to feel free to discuss this issue in a calm manner. Thanks as always for all you do!!

  3. BarbaraJPeters says:

    Great information. The people who who have to live with this kind of behavior suffer greatly as well. It is impportant to know that so many people are in this kind of situation and not just the one drinking. Thank you for bringing attention to this matter.

  4. Lorrie says:

    Boundaries around our behavior and the behavior of those in our life is such a dance. This article puts a term to an issue in a way I had not considered before.

  5. Ruth Hegarty says:

    Lisa, I always learn something new reading your blog. I never thought about second hand drinking as harmful in the way we all accept that second hand smoke is. It’s an important issue.

    • Thank you, Ruth! Hopefully the term will also help us approach drinking differently, as well. Hopefully, the same way we had a sea change when we quit trying to get the smoker to stop smoking and instead worked to prevent the secondhand health impacts on those within the sphere of the smoker can also occur with secondhand drinking — encouraging people to stay within low-risk limits and thereby prevent the destructive drinking behaviors.

  6. Elizabeth Maness says:

    This is such a tragedy in so many lives. Thank you for showing us the difference between the two and for bringing awareness to suc a sad reality. So many people need help with this matter.

  7. Sherie says:

    Lisa, such important information, especially defining what is normal drinking behavior. Drinking does impact others and the images that you presented tell the story, don’t they? This is such a big problem and you are to be commended for the wonderful work you do in educating people. Lisa, you are amazing…

    • Sherie – thank you so much for this compliment – I really appreciate it. I found the definition of normal drinking limits extremely helpful, myself – finally a target! and measurements to help explain why a drink at one bar might feel entirely different than a drink at another. Thanks for adding your comment and sharing this post!

  8. Estelle says:

    Thanks for Sharing! I know binge drinking has become more prevalent, especially in young peopl- interesting that not every excessive drinker is an alcoholic.

    • You are so right about binge drinking being such a huge problem amoung young people, Estelle. And like you, I was not aware there are actually 3 stages of drinking nor was there the information on low-risk limits at the time. Thanks for your comment!

  9. Martha Giffen says:

    You always share such helpful information. Keep posting. There are so many that need to hear your message.

  10. Brandi Taylor says:

    Great information, Lisa. I love your approach and detail in raising awareness.

  11. Marie Leslie says:

    Thank you, Lisa, you taught me something new today. I did not know there was a difference between alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Both are definitely serious problems in society today and need to not only be taken seriously, but addressed and taught so we can prevent both.

    • Thank you, Marie! I know, myself, it was not understanding there was a difference between the two that kept me tolerating my loved one’s drinking behaviors far longer than I might have – afraid to label them an alcoholic – something else I did not understand. I appreciate your comment very much.

  12. Thank you for another Amazing article, Lisa! I know too well about SHD from many years ago with my ex. I am so grateful that I no longer have to live like I once did.

  13. Lisa, I always learn so much from your posts. I also thought that alcoholism and alcohol abuse were synonymous, but now I understand there are important differences. Having watched several families who are close to mine dealing with these issues, it’s helpful for me to hear your perspectives and where we should focus our time and energy.

    • That’s so great to hear, Amy – thank you so much. It is very difficult to know what to do with people who drink too much – regardless of whether is abuse or dependence – glad this helps.

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