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Second-hand alcohol drinking is finally being recognized for its health risk

Perhaps a little too late, but we are beginning to come to terms with our over-reliance on alcohol for social stimulation.

I have always had a funny relationship with alcohol. Growing up in a Jain/Hindu family meant that there was certainly no alcohol around the house. Even when I was introduced to it in friends’ circles at the age of 15, I felt guilty about drinking it. Something was hard-wired in my brain about alcohol being dangerous and destructive. 

Fast-forward nearly ten years and I do drink, not heavily, but I indulge in a glass of wine or a refreshing gin and tonic now and again with friends and colleagues. 

I do, still, feel weird about the concept of deliberately getting drunk or, as the British would say, getting smashed. Alcohol is a big part of British social culture, whether at university or at work. So finding drunk people on the streets on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night is common. 

And as I’ve grown up, I have become even more convinced that alcohol is, in fact, dangerous and destructive. The impacts of drinking and hangovers on both physical and mental health are evident. What often is not evident is the impact an individual’s drinking has on people around them. 

Second-hand drinking is now finally being addressed by public health officials as a community concern, much in the same way as second-hand smoking has long been associated with vulnerable victims. 

Second-hand drinking can have an array of nefarious impacts on innocent bystanders or those who know the offender well. These include accidents as a result of drunk-driving, verbal, and physical harassment, abuse, neglect of children and dependents, and financial strain. 

Timothy Naimi, a physician at the Boston Medical Center hopes that the formal recognition of second-hand drinking as a public health issue will spur legislative action, such as taxes on alcoholic beverages. There is a risk, however, that all taxation will do is to take alcohol from the hands of the working-class, while the middle and upper classes continue to consume it without qualms. 

Hard legislation and alcohol bans have historically caused more uprising than positive change. The most famous example is Prohibition in the States between 1920 and 1933 where there was a nation-wide ban of alcohol on moral (read: religious) grounds. Although the final state to repeal Prohibition only repealed it in the 1960s, the legacy of the ban was organized crime and the establishment of a black market for alcohol. 

Alcohol legislation has since been a touchy subject across the world, especially where alcohol is considered a normal part of social activities and community culture. This is the challenge when trying to determine how to tackle second-hand drinking. 

Identifying that second-hand drinking is a public health risk is the first step. The marking and communication of second-hand smoking as a public health hazard greatly altered the public perception of smoking, particularly around minors. In the UK, this label, along with effective advertising campaigns, resulted in the ban of smoking in enclosed public spaces and workplaces in 2007. 

Perhaps it is time that we come face-to-face with some of the disastrous impacts that excessive drinking can have on both individuals and their families and the wider communities that they live in. We can no longer make excuses for our inactivity or indifference, simply because alcohol is a more acceptable substance to consume in Western cultures.