Neo-prohibitionists decry supposed “secondhand harms” of alcohol

I recently came across a bogus, new study about the so-called “secondhand harms” of alcohol—that is, the harms caused to others by all people who drink alcohol.

And if the term “secondhand” sounds familiar, it should. The nanny governments started peddling this same junk science in the 1980s and 1990s about the supposed dangers of secondhand smoke. Of course, there was no real evidence to support their ridiculous claims when they started up with them. Yet, the simple accusation was enough to sway public opinion, get more government control, and restrict smoking entirely in most public places.

And now, the neo-prohibitionists are using this very same playbook in an attempt to ban all alcohol, for anyone and everyone, at any time. And they may just get their way if they’re able to—once again—divert lawmakers’ attention away from the science.

Here’s what they’re attempting to do…

1.) Repeat the well-known and accepted harms of excessive use.

We know that excessive use of both alcohol and tobacco does cause harm in some people. In fact, tobacco causes harm in about 10 percent of people who use it in excess. And alcohol becomes a problem for about 9 percent of people who consume it.

But that also means that 91 people who consume alcohol don’t have a problem with it. They drink responsibly, in moderation, and they enjoy the many science-backed health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. (Like significant protection against heart disease and dementia. In fact, as you may recall, moderate drinkers are far more likely to live to age 85 without developing dementia than teetotalers.)

The truth of the matter is that some people are genetically susceptible to smoke, and some are more prone to alcohol abuse. But the vast majority of people who drink, use alcohol safely—in moderation and to the benefit of their health.

And that’s a fact the neo-prohibitionists can’t seem to grasp…the simple logic that just about anything can be harmful in excessive amounts. (Even water!) But reducing your intake to moderate levels (say, one to two drinks) drastically reduces any risk.

2.) Pass laws to restrict usage for anyone and everyone.

The neo-prohibitionists insist that because a substance is harmful for a small percentage of people, its use must be restricted for everyone.

So, instead of going after the minority of real offenders, who do cause harm, the nanny states keep ratcheting down on responsible citizens. (You know, the ones who would like to go out and share a bottle of wine at dinner—responsibly—without risking real consequences.) Accordingly, we’ve seen the “legal limit” drop from 0.10 percent blood alcohol to 0.08 percent almost everywhere. And in some nanny states, they’ve dropped it as low as 0.05 percent!

But there’s absolutely no scientific basis for pushing the legal limit this low. (I can make this assertion because for decades, forensic scientists have been able to determine exactly how to assess, measure, and evaluate intoxication as it relates to blood alcohol levels—which we cannot do for other substances.)

Plus, I can tell you from my 40 years of personal experience in forensic science that motor vehicle fatalities are NOT caused by drinkers who had “one too many,” but by those who had 10 too many.

They aren’t caused by drivers who are 10 percent over the “legal limit,” but by problem drinkers who are two or three times higher than the legal limit. These individuals are literally “blind drunk” and “falling down drunk”—terms that accurately describe the physiologic and motor impairments of intoxication at that high level.

But it’s easier for law enforcement to pick the low-hanging fruit and go after law-abiding citizens on their way home from drinking wine at dinner. Besides, think of all the extra revenue for local governments—since these same responsible citizens actually pay their fines and can be found and harassed if they don’t.

Ironically, many of the same nanny politicians who want to ban alcohol also want to legalize marijuana. But in states where marijuana has been legalized, motor vehicle fatalities have skyrocketed. Plus, nearly half the cases involving drunk driving also show intoxication with marijuana and other drugs. (But those drugs can get a pass because law enforcement and forensic science don’t know how to really measure levels of actual intoxication in the blood for any substance other than alcohol.)

3.) Argue that the substance threatens non-users.

Neo-prohibitionists are set on showing the problems of so-called “secondhand” alcohol.

And this is the step that really gets the government’s attention. Because if you want to do something “bad” that harms you, it’s one thing. But if they can show that your “bad” behavior supposedly harms someone else, well, that’s where the heavy hand and footprint of big government really comes in.

But this idea throws out the baby with the bathwater. And it’s the triumph of politics over science.

I personally witnessed how public health bureaucrats succeeded in pulling off this triumph against tobacco in the mid-1980s. Eventually, states passed laws aimed at “protecting” you against the supposed dangers of secondhand smoke. (But as I said, no real evidence demonstrated that secondhand smoke is an actual threat.)

Of course, lack of hard scientific evidence never stopped any politician from pushing through their agenda. And now, they’ve got some new fodder about the supposed “secondhand harms” of alcohol…

Bogus study provides new fodder for neo-prohibitionists

For this new study, researchers surveyed nearly 9,000 adults, asking them if they’d been “harmed” due to someone else’s drinking during the past year. The so-called “harms” included:

  • Aggression
  • Damage
  • Harassment
  • Financial problems
  • Relationship issues

It turns out, 21 percent of women and 23 percent of men in the study said had they experienced one of these subjective harms during the past year. Then, the researchers extrapolated these percentages to apply them to the entire country, claiming alcohol causes secondhand harm to 53 million Americans.

But, as you might expect, we should take this study’s findings with a major grain of salt…

For one, these were subjective, self-reported harms. And—they referred to single incidents, rather than long-term patterns.

Second, there was no mention about the ability of moderate alcohol intake (among the 91 percent of drinkers) to reduce stress, lower tension, and create a more convivial atmosphere—all of which would reduce the kind of subjective “harms” as defined in this study.

Third, the survey did not look at how people behave differently depending on what type of alcohol they consume. But that data point is important—because careful studies show some folks may behave more aggressively with spirits or hard liquor, compared to beer or wine.

Perhaps the neo-prohibitionists will recruit “Bill Nye, the science guy” to their cause. (That is, if they can get him to come in from “the cold” and take a break from his usual political propaganda.) He, too, seems to have a knack for ignoring the real science—and doesn’t have a background in biology or forensic science, either.

In the end, I don’t put much stock into this study…or in this line of thinking. Excessive alcohol does cause harm. That finding is nothing new. But moderate drinking, as I always report, has a host of mental and physical health benefits. So stay the moderate course…and enjoy a glass of wine (or two!) with dinner.

P.S. For a deeper look into the many benefits of moderate alcohol, check out the October 2014 issue of my monthly newsletter, Insiders’ Cures (“Moderate drinking protects your heart, even if you have high blood pressure”). Subscribers have access to all of my past content in the archives. So if you haven’t already, consider signing up today. All it takes is one click!


“Alcohol’s Secondhand Harms in the United States: New Data on Prevalence and Risk Factors.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 2019; 80(3): 273-281.