Guest Opinion: 'Secondhand drinking' is as dangerous as secondhand smoking | December 4, 2009 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

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Spectrum - December 4, 2009

Guest Opinion: 'Secondhand drinking' is as dangerous as secondhand smoking

by Lisa Frederiksen

Next week I'll be traveling to the Mojave Desert, to Fort Irwin National Training Center. It's way out there in the High Mojave, 37 miles northeast of Barstow and midway between Las Vegas and San Bernardino.

It's way out there, a long way from my Menlo Park home. But the location is perfect for its current mission: to train U.S. troops, regardless of their service branch, in desert combat before they deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan.

I had given a presentation at Ft. Irwin in August, titled: "Alcohol and the Brain: How a Person Can Lose Control of Their Drinking." They invited me back to do an expanded program that incorporates new research on alcohol and the brain — and in recognition of December being National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month.

I've since been wrestling with how I would do that. I want to give them something more than the usual "Don't drink and drive" message. So I've decided to focus on secondhand drinking, a term used to describe the ripple effects of a person's alcohol misuse on families, co-workers, fellow soldiers, fellow students and society at large.

Driving while impaired presents a multitude of secondhand-drinking impacts, some literal, some deadly. You may have heard the staggering number of persons nationally who set off this ripple effect. In one year, more than 1.4 million drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. This accounts for less than 1 percent of the 159 million self-reported episodes of alcohol-impaired driving among American adults each year.

Even more horrific is the number of people killed by alcohol-impaired drivers. The number of folks injured is stunning, too: more than half a million — an average of one person almost every minute. The costs in pain and suffering of survivors is immeasurable: paralysis, disfigurement, lost limbs, lost jobs or earning power, and emotional trauma. Add the impacts on the drivers' family members and friends and you quickly see how far-reaching secondhand-drinking impacts can be.

Then consider the children.

A segment on an October Oprah Winfrey Show, titled "A Mother's Fatal Decision," sheds light on the horrors of children having to advocate for their safety with an adult who is too drunk to drive. The segment featured Carmen, a mom who had driven after drinking with seven young girls in her car following a slumber party. Carmen crashed. Three of the girls were thrown from the car — one died, two were seriously injured and Carmen was charged with vehicular manslaughter. Her blood alcohol content was .132, well over the legal limit.

Kayla, 11, one of the passengers and a friend of the girl who was killed, was Oprah's guest. Here is the essence of what Kayla said about how Carmen appeared (in other words, "Was she drunk?"):

"I told Brittany that her mom looks like she's kind of drunk, and Brittany said that ... if her mom was drunk her eyes would be closed a little, you know like closed a bit, and that her eyes weren't closed so she wasn't drunk. ... I believed her because Brittany knows her mom, you know like knows her mom like really, really, really well. And I like know her like half and half."

When Oprah asked what made Kayla think [Brittany's] mom might be drunk, Kayla answered: "To me it was the way she was talking. ... It's like hard to explain."

The Oprah segment brings home the reality of what millions of children face each day — how to handle secondhand drinking.

In this case, it was two 11-year-old girls trying to figure out whether a mother was too drunk to drive. And Brittany, Carmen's daughter, has been trying to keep herself safe for some time with an "I know when she's drunk" test that measures the extent to which her mom's eyes are closed.

We need to stop here and let this sink in because it drives home the impacts of secondhand drinking on children. Not only the obvious ones — accidents, deaths and injuries — but the less obvious but no less far-reaching ones: child endangerment, confusion, lost trust, verbal and physical abuse, trouble in school, and fear.

To help children facing consequences of secondhand drinking we need to expand alcohol-abuse education in schools, medical practices, society and homes to include signs a child should look for in an adult that may indicate the adult is impaired and should not be driving. We need to teach children what a child can say to decline a ride and call for help. And, perhaps the most challenging and damaging long-term, how a child can cope and keep safe when living in a home where there is alcohol misuse.

This is a much different educational program than the "Why alcohol is bad for you and why you should not partake" message of most substance-abuse education today. But it is one for which we have a tremendously successful precedent: the secondhand-smoking campaign. As a society we were able to make a significant difference in the smoking culture in America once we started publicizing the impacts of secondhand smoke. We must do the same for the impacts of secondhand drinking.

One in four children in America will be exposed to a family member's alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism before the age of 18. That affects both those children and potentially their friends.

So as the troops and civilians celebrate December as National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month at Fort Irwin, I encourage us locally to start talking about all of "it" — openly, fully and often — for our children's sake. Perhaps then we can help other 11-year-olds avoid what happened to the children in "A Mother's Fatal Decision." Perhaps then we can help the millions of children who are having similar secondhand-drinking experiences in silence, solitude, secrecy and shame.

Perhaps then we can change the drinking culture in America that contributes to the staggering numbers of people who drive drunk.

Lisa Frederiksen is a Menlo Park resident and a researcher, writer, speaker and consultant, and most recently the author of her seventh book: "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop! What You Really Need To Know When Your Loved One Drinks Too Much." She also writes a blog,, and gives presentations. She can be e-mailed at


Like this comment
Posted by Marisol Muñoz-Kiehne
a resident of another community
on Dec 12, 2009 at 6:50 am

Well said, thank you!!!
I look forward to listening to you talk about this tomorrow on "Childhood Matters" radio show°

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