Fuseworks Media

Drinkers harm more than themselves – new study reveals alarming magnitude

New research released yesterday highlights just how much more harm alcohol drinkers cause to others. The study from Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University, looks at numbers of years of full health lost – or disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) shows that harms to others from alcohol contributes 56% of total alcohol-related harm in Aotearoa New Zealand (NZ). Most of this is from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, followed by road crashes as a result of someone else’s drinking, and alcohol-fuelled violence.

“The harm to others from alcohol is alarming,” says Alcohol Healthwatch Executive Director Andrew Galloway. “We’ve known for some time that alcohol causes enormous harm, not just to the drinker, but to those around the drinker and wider communities – this is one of the reasons it is NZ’s most harmful drug. But this study highlights just how widespread those harms to others are, and how incredibly under-estimated they have been in the past.”

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, comprised over 90% of the healthy years lost. FASD, a term describing a range of lifelong cognitive, physical, or emotional deficits caused by prenatal alcohol exposure, is responsible for 15 healthy life years lost for every 1,000 people. For Māori, the harm represents 22 healthy life years lost.

The study also sheds light on the considerable inequities in how alcohol harms others. Māori experience almost twice the harm from FASD, road crashes as a result of someone else’s drinking, and alcohol-fuelled violence.

“This puts a spotlight on how unfair and unjust our system is,” says Galloway. “Māori are more likely to have to live in neighbourhoods saturated with bottle shops and are saturated by more by alcohol advertising. These are among the reasons we see these inequitable statistics – with Māori overwhelmingly bearing the burden of alcohol harm, even those who don’t drink.”

The study also raises interesting comparisons with the second-hand harms from smoking. Second-hand smoke accounts for 1,989 DALYs compared with the 78,000 DALYs from the three harm measures alone in this study.

“The second-hand harms from smoking were a large part of the drive towards positive public health focussed policy changes,” says Galloway. “Yet what we see here is second-hand harms from alcohol are almost forty times the amount of second-hand harms from smoking. And this isn’t even including the wide range of other second-hand alcohol harms that are common, including child maltreatment, violence and abuse to our health professionals and emergency department staff, loss of business productivity, or the community-wide impacts after someone commits suicide under the influence of alcohol.”

Overall, this study shows that the harms to others are just as large as the harms to the drinker, underpinning the importance of accounting for these sizable harms when developing policy to protect our communities and vulnerable groups.

“It’s common to think of the harms to the drinker when thinking about alcohol, such as cancers, injuries, poor mental health and so on,” Galloway continues. “But this study is a reminder that the harms extend much further – and that is really unfair. More protections around alcohol would mean fewer road traffic deaths, less alcohol-fuelled violence, and more babies born healthy. This would help our communities thrive, and we would all stand to benefit from this.”