The Guardian: How secondhand drinking ruins lives: ‘Every family has been touched by this’

Family members of people killed by drink drivers hold pictures of their loved ones during a Mothers Against Drunk Driving rally in Washington DC.
Family members of people killed by drink drivers hold pictures of their loved ones during a Mothers Against Drunk Driving rally in Washington DC. Photograph: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call

Helen Witty thought she had taught her children all about the dangers of drinking. She was raised with the knowledge that her great-grandfather’s alcoholism had led him to suicide. “It’s in the family,” her mother warned her. In a classic expression of the ripple effect of harmful drinking, Witty kept her own consumption modest. And she taught her two children to understand and to be careful of the long shadow cast by other people’s drinking.

But what none of the family had prepared for was the day when Helen Marie, Witty’s 16-year-old daughter, stood in the drive of their Florida home wearing her skates; she wanted to destress before a big school play. She flipped around, blew her mother a kiss and said she would be right back.

She didn’t return. When her father went to look for her, he found a crime scene. Helen Marie had been hit while skating on a bike path by a 17-year-old driver who had been drinking tequila and smoking cannabis. Instead of bringing his daughter home, her father had to identify her body.

Helen Marie was killed by another person’s abuse of alcohol in a tragic example of so-called secondhand drinking. While the concept of secondhand, or passive, smoking is familiar, secondhand drinking is a growing field of study. Last week, the Alcohol Research Group at the Public Health Institute in Emeryville, California, published research showing that 53 million Americans each year experience harm from another individual’s alcohol use. That is one in four men, and one in five women. Given that passive smoking is treated as a serious public health hazard in countries from Mongolia to Colombia, Australia to the UK, why are governments so slow to notice, let alone challenge, secondhand drinking?

Helen Marie Witty, aged 16.
Helen Marie Witty, aged 16. Photograph: Mothers Against Drunk Driving

“Secondhand smoking really changed public opinion and paved the way for legislation to make bars and public places smoke-free,” says Sir Ian Gilmore, the chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance and the director of the Liverpool Centre for Alcohol Research. “There is undoubtedly harm from secondhand smoke, but the range and magnitude of harms is likely to be even greater from alcohol.”

“We are only just starting to appreciate the long-term impact of these harms,” adds Katherine Karriker-Jaffe, a senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group in the US, and the author of the research published last week. Her team worked with 10 categories of harm, from harassment to assault. Although she cannot recall experiencing any secondhand harm herself, she is something of an anomaly because, as Gilmore points out: “There is hardly a family that hasn’t been touched in some way, whether it’s a child of an alcoholic or someone who has been punched on a night out. There are so many examples; it is genuinely unusual to come across a family where someone hasn’t been affected by alcohol.”

Often, the effects of alcohol use can ripple from one life into another. All too easily, a person who suffers a secondary harm can become a perpetrator of further harms.

Sam is the birth mother of a child with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). When she was pregnant, her then partner had a problem with alcohol. “It was an abusive relationship,” she says. “I struggled with what was going on. When you’re in that part of your life where everything is overwhelming …” She trails off. She drank on average a bottle of wine a week, with “the odd binge”.

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