In Secondhand Drinking, Alcohol Misuse, Prevention Resources

Given 90 million Americans are affected by secondhand drinking (up to 40% of a workforce), helping employees find the words to talk with a loved one or friend about their drinking can improve an employee’s quality of life and a company or agency’s bottom line.

To this end, I am sharing the following to pass along to your employees to help them find the words to talk about a drinking problem.

How Do You Know if Someone’s Drinking is a Problem

Short answer: “If you’re talking or concerned about it.” What do I mean?

The only reason a person would be worried about another person’s drinking is because that other person’s behaviors change when they drink. Their behavioral changes are called drinking behaviors.

Drinking behaviors occur when a person consumes more alcohol, thus more ethyl alcohol chemicals, than their liver can metabolize. When this happens, the ethyl alcohol chemicals interrupt the chemical portion of the brain’s cell-to-cell communications. This suppresses normal neural network functioning responsible for judgment, memory, pleasure/reward, emotions, breathing…. In other words, it changes a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just the drinking pattern of alcoholism that causes these behavioral changes, although alcoholism is certainly one. Binge drinking, heavy social drinking, and alcohol abuse (terms now grouped together as alcohol misuse and/or alcohol use disorders [1]) also cause drinking behaviors. Some of the drinking behaviors include:

  • crazy, convoluted accusations and illogical arguments
  • verbal, physical and/or emotional abuse
  • bullying; neglect
  • driving while impaired
  • domestic violence.

Why is it Your Business?

There is a direct impact – a second-hand effect – on the people confronted and/or coping with drinking behaviors. These second-hand effects include:

  • being on the receiving end of drinking-related verbal, physical or emotional abuse; neglect; bullying and believing it’s the “real” person coming out, not understanding the behaviors are the consequence of chemical changes in the brain
  • being seriously injured by an impaired driver
  • feelings of anxiousness, hopelessness, walking on egg shells because of the uncertainty, worry, fear, anger, concern triggered when in the sphere of an impaired person’s drinking behaviors
  • being on the receiving end of domestic violence or a sexual assault by a person whose brain functioning has changed under the influence of alcohol.

Moms, dads, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, grandparents, boyfriends, and girlfriends exposed to and/or coping with these sorts of drinking behaviors experience physical, emotional and quality of life impacts because the drinking behaviors trigger their stress response system. When this system is repeatedly activated, their stress becomes toxic, and they experience many of the following stress-related symptoms:

  • stomach ailments
  • insomnia
  • anxiety, depression, frequent or wild mood swings
  • chronic neck and/or shoulder pain
  • frequent headaches, migraines
  • chest pain, palpitations, rapid pulse
  • increased anger, frustration, hostility
  • feeling overloaded, overwhelmed, helpless, hopeless

So what might you do next?

Confirm for Yourself Whether Their Drinking “Really” is a Problem

This is often what keeps a person from talking to someone about their drinking – they’re not really sure whether it is a “problem” and don’t want to get sideways with that person by suggesting it is. One of my favorite resources for answering this question is the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)’s website, “Rethinking Drinking,” and specifically this page on the site, “How Much is Too Much?” To give you a sneak preview, here is what is considered “normal” or “low-risk” drinking:

  • For women: no more than 7 standard drinks per week, with no more than 3 of the 7 on any one day.
  • For men: no more than 14 standard drinks per week, with no more than 4 of the 17 on any one day.
  • A standard drink is defined as: 5 ounces of table wine, 12 ounces of regular beer, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof hard liquor.

Thus, if the person you’re conceded about drinks more that these limits, you’re right to be concerned.

The World Health Organization offers an assessment that can easily and anonymously be completed, as well. It’s called the Alcohol Use Disorders Test (AUDIT). Click here for the pdf download. The assessment is on page 17, and in America, Question 3 should be 4 or more drinks on one occasion for women and 5 or more for men (because drink sizes in America are larger than the world average standard drink size). Interpreting and scoring the AUDIT is found on pages 19-21. Please note – the AUDIT is designed and intended as a screening tool to be used by a medical practitioner, so for the layperson, it should be considered information only.

Understand the Majority of People with a Drinking Problem are not Alcoholics

This is often a surprise to people. It’s also a relief. In fact, according to NIAAA’s Rethinking Drinking website (you’ll get these results yourself if you anonymously answer the “What’s Your Pattern?” Qs), the majority of American adults don’t drink at all (35%) or always stay within low risk limits (37%) and of those who exceed these limits, the majority are considered alcohol abusers (19%) vs. alcoholics (9%).[1]

Notice I differentiated between alcohol abusers and alcoholics. The reason for this distinction is that “stopping” is different depending on which one it is. For the alcoholic, they have the brain disease of addiction and must stop drinking all together. For the alcohol abuser, it is possible they can can learn to “re-drink” – to bring their drinking pattern within “low-risk” limits.

Get Solid on Your Beliefs about the Problem

One of the ways we get tripped up when we try to have a conversations with someone about their drinking is we don’t have the come-backs to the many retorts they throw at us, such as:

  • I hadn’t eaten all day!
  • Having a couple of drinks a night is no big deal.
  • I only drink on the week-ends, and have I ever missed a day of work? No!
  • You drink! So what’s the big deal?

I’ve written a short eBook, Crossing the Line From Alcohol Use to Abuse to Dependence (aka alcoholism), to provide the answers that debunk the common myths and misperceptions about a variety of topics related to a person’s drinking. You may also wish to purchase the Quick Series® Publishing pocket guide, Secondhand Drinking.

And, now…

What to Say to Someone With a Drinking Problem

Sometimes knowing what to say to someone with a drinking problem is as much as knowing what NOT to say.

Sometimes knowing what to say to someone with a drinking problem is as much about knowing what NOT to say.

Here’s where it’s helpful to know what NOT to say.

  • You’re a drunk!
  • Do you know how stupid you sounded last night!
  • Once again, you broke your promise. You broke YOUR PROMISE!!
  • If you loved me you’d stop!

Although these kinds of statements are totally normal, they generally stem from not understanding that when a person drinks more than their liver can process (rid the body of), the alcohol continues to change brain function, which is why the person behaves the way they do. It’s not “them,” it’s alcohol changing brain function.

Not only this, but these kinds of statements are of the blaming and shaming type and while they make you feel better (believe me, I know from my own experiences), they don’t help the situation because the person with the drinking problem already feels ashamed and filled with self-loathing for why they can’t stop at one or two.

Instead, try these possible entry statements to the conversation BUT ONLY when they are sober and you’ve asked to talk with them:

  • I don’t know if you’re aware how much your behaviors change when you drink, but last night, for example ____________.
  • I’ve been doing some googling trying to figure out if I should say anything about how you behave when you drink too much and found this great website, Rethinking Drinking. I’d really like you to do the anonymous assessment and take a look at the other information on the site.
  • I think you have alcoholism – I say this so boldly because I’d never understood what alcoholism was before, but now I’ve been doing some research, and it appears you may have it. I’d really like you to take this anonymous assessment created by the World Health Organization as a starter.
  • I’ve finally found a name for what happens to me when you behave the way you do while drinking – it’s called secondhand drinking. I’m going to be learning a great deal more about this, but I wanted you to know that your drinking behaviors – the way you act when you drink too much – are causing real problems for me. I’m not sure what to do about them, but I’m also understanding that my old ways of talking about this don’t work, either.

Know it doesn’t have to all be done at once

We tend to want to get it ALL out there and then have a solution – an action plan – by the end of the conversation. But with these kinds of conversations, rarely is this possible. The better approach is to calmly state your concern and then ask if you can talk about some of your other observations and research findings in a day or two – and then be sure to set a date/time to talk. They may want to keep going, but likely they won’t. And if they get defensive at any point, remind them you are doing this out of love and concern. You’d be doing the same thing if you were concerned about some other aspect of their health and wellbeing.

Remember – they are a person, first, and then a person with a drinking problem

It’s so easy to see them as their problem because their drinking problem is causing drinking behaviors that in turn cause you problems. You’ll want to be clear in your own mind that you are taking a stand against their drinking behaviors – against secondhand drinking (the negative impacts of their drinking behaviors on you and the quality of your life) – and not against them as a person.



(1) Current terminology defines any drinking pattern that exceeds “low-risk” limits as an alcohol use disorder (AUD). In other words, the more commonly used terms most people are familiar with — binge drinking, heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse and alcoholism — are all considered alcohol use disorders (AUDs). Alcoholism is the most severe of the AUDs. 

Additionally, a person with the most severe AUD is no longer referred to as an alcoholic. Rather s/he is referred to as a person with an alcohol use disorder. I like this distinction. It allows us to see the person with an AUD as a person, first, and then second, as a person with an AUD.

When referring to alcoholism, it is also currently correct to use the term Substance Use Disorder (SUD). A substance use disorder is either alcohol or other drug misuse.

Lisa Frederiksen
Lisa Frederiksen has a 39-year career in executive management, consulting, speaking, training and writing and is the founder of and SHD Prevention. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and eleven books, including, "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," "Secondhand Drinking: The Phenomenon That Affects Millions," and “If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!” She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, trainer, and frequent guest on radio, TV, and Internet radio shows.
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