Who pays for your drinks?

Australian researchers lead a global research program on how drinking can bring harm to others, writes Shazma Gaffoor.

Drinkers and their problems have long been the focus of research surrounding drinking habits. In recent years, a new perspective, ‘alcohol’s harm to others’ (HTO) has attracted important global attention. HTO is the second-hand effects of drinking, or the collateral damage of alcohol.

“Our work on alcohol’s harm to others started from the assumption that most of the discussion and literature was about harm to the drinker,” says Distinguished Professor Robin Room, from The Centre for Alcohol Policy and Research (CAPR) at La Trobe University. “But the drinker has major relationships with families, friends, co-workers and even strangers. There is also a good deal of harm that happens to others because of someone’s drinking.”

“Injuries, financial or mental health problems are consequences that affects someone other than the drinker,” says Professor Room. “In modern Australian society, traffic injuries and damage from drink-driving has also been recognised as the result of alcohol’s harm to others.”

Professor Room, along with CAPR member Dr Anne-Marie Laslett and other collaborators, began research on HTO projects about in 2008, supported by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. This led to a collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2009, who had begun an initiative on alcohol related themes.

“We worked with the WHO to develop a study across eight countries,” says Dr Laslett. “Not only could we look at what was happening in Australia, we could compare the harms that people were experiencing from other people’s drinking from several different countries.”

The research was funded by WHO, Thai Health Promotion Foundation (ThaiHealth) and later a National Health and Medica Research Council (NHMRC) grant, funding the comparison of alcohol-related data from Australia and New Zealand with that of low and middle income countries around the world.

The study focused on a range of alcohol related harm to others, from severe outcomes such as sexual assault to minor effects, like the loss of friendship or stable housing due to the drinking habits of others.

The research has led to the publication of more than 40 papers on alcohol’s harm to others in Australia, while the global collaboration with WHO has been published as a book called Harm to Others from Drinking: Patterns in Nine Societies. The book contains data and analysis from Thailand, Chile, India, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand.

The group has received a new ARC Linkage Grant, allowing a new study to commence in 2021.

“Since the publication of the book we’ve continued our global collaborative research, taking the data collected by each national team in their country and developing a comparative analysis,” says Professor Room. “This has led to a broader, global understanding of the effects of alcohol on others, which can better inform policy and treatment recommendations in the future.”