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Jennifer O’Connell: Second-hand drinking? We call it ‘craic’

If you’ve been groped by a drunken stranger in a bar, you’ve experienced second-hand drinking

The letter writer was annoyed. She was from the United States, and now living in Kinsale. She was writing to The Irish Times to raise the issue of the "much neglected aspect of the harm inflicted on innocent bystanders" by cigarette smoke.

Smoking, she informed readers, was banned in hospital waiting rooms in the US. Not only that, she added archly, “my husband and I ask our friends (all reasonable people) not to smoke in our house”.

The year was 1974. It would be another two years before there was any further mention of  “second-hand smoke” in this newspaper. It came in an editorial which posited – gently, in hindsight – that “food is better when it is not mixed with a nicotine effluent”.

Forty-five years later, it seems extraordinary that any of this was novel, noteworthy, or remotely up for debate, or that we ever put up, uncomplaining, with the second-hand effects of other people’s wholly disgusting habit, in smoke-filled hospital waiting rooms, cinemas, theatres and workplaces.


In fact, it was 30 years after later that the workplace smoking ban came into effect in Ireland, and remarkably, we were the first country in the world to bring it in.

I was going to say that I grew up in a generation that normalised binge-drinking – but really, who didn't?

When I entered the workplace at the tail end of the 1990s, newsrooms were still acrid, smelly, smoke-filled places. In the days before online archives, the small, glass-encased room where we kept the back issues of the newspaper doubled as the smoking room. If you didn’t manage to find what you were looking for amid the towering piles of yellowed back editions quickly, you’d go home smelling like you’d taken a detour via Renards nightclub. Since many of us frequently did take a detour via Renards nightclub, that wasn’t a huge issue.

Nowadays, of course, we all agree that inflicting your second-hand smoke on others is rude, anti-social, borderline aggressive. But we’ve reached no such consensus on second-hand drinking. We don’t even acknowledge the phrase “second-hand drinking” in this country. We prefer “craic”.

I was going to say that I grew up in a generation that normalised binge-drinking – but really, who didn’t? “I was drunk,” we say, as an excuse for all manner of things, as though describing some unfortunate and unavoidable phenomenon visited upon us by forces entirely beyond our control. Never “I got drunk”. Just “I was drunk”.

Someone, no doubt, is preparing to email me or message me on Twitter to say it’s ridiculous to liken second-hand drinking to second-hand smoking. There are clear health risks to second-hand smoking – heart disease, lung disease, stroke, asthma, premature birth. Alcohol doesn’t harm anyone except the drinker. I’ve probably made that argument myself.

It’s not true though, is it? If you’ve been unlucky enough to come up against a drunk driver on a dark country road at night, you’ve experienced second-hand drinking. If you’re the child of an alcoholic, you know all about it. Likewise, if you’re the partner of a heavy drinker.

We've been talking about the effects of second-hand smoking for nearly half a century

But you don’t have to be in an intimate relationship with an alcoholic to be affected by it. If you’ve ever been groped by a drunken stranger in a bar, or attacked in the street, you’ve experienced second-hand drinking. If you’re a taxi driver or a bar worker or a nurse or a doctor in A&E, you’ve most likely been on the frontline of it.

Almost 85 per cent of Irish adults drink, and we have the one of the highest per capita consumption rates in Europe. Yet, laughably, we refuse to consider that this could possibly have any wider societal downsides, beyond the immediate impact on our own liver. And most of the time, we don't think much about that either.

A study in the US attempting to quantify the effects of second-hand drinking found that almost one in five adults there are harmed by other people’s drinking each year.

The study, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs at the end of June, surveyed 8,750 people to see if they had experienced any one of the following 10 drinking-related negative outcomes in the past year: being harassed, bothered, called names, or otherwise insulted; feeling threatened or afraid; having clothing or belongings ruined; having house, car, or other property vandalised; being pushed, hit, or assaulted; being physically harmed; being in a traffic accident; being a passenger in a vehicle with a drunk driver; having family problems or marriage difficulties; or having financial trouble.

The researchers found that women were more likely to report harm due to drinking by a spouse, partner or family member. Men were more likely to report harm due to a stranger’s drinking. Being female “also predicted family and financial harms”.

“Given the impact on other people’s physical and mental health and quality of life, the societal costs of alcohol are estimated to be twice those incurred by drinkers to themselves,” they wrote.

One in five seems low, but then, in my anecdotal experience and that of several global studies, Americans drink a lot less than Irish people.

We’ve been talking about the effects of second-hand smoking for nearly half a century. It’s time we started a conversation about second-hand drinking.