Intended for healthcare professionals


Secondhand effects of alcohol use among university students: computerised survey

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 30 October 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:1023
  1. John D Langley (john.langley{at}, professor1,
  2. Kypros Kypri, research fellow1,
  3. Shaun CR Stephenson, biostatistician1
  1. 1Injury Prevention Research Unit, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago, Dunedin 9000, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to: J D Langley
  • Accepted 15 July 2003


“Secondhand effects”—negative experiences directly resulting from someone else's drinking—are among the problems associated with heavy drinking. Secondhand effects regularly receive attention from the media, and this probably shapes public opinion on alcohol policies and how individuals behave—for example, avoiding high risk situations—although no empirical studies have examined this. Also, studies of the incidence of secondhand effects are rare. One survey about drinking among college students has found that secondhand effects—including interruptions to study or sleep, having to take care of a drunk student, and being insulted or humiliated—were common.1

Many university students in New Zealand often drink hazardously and are therefore a suitable population for studying secondhand effects.2 We estimate the incidence of secondhand effects among university students, by the sex, age, and drinking status of the victim.

Participants, methods, and results

We invited a random sample of 1910 students (aged 16-29 years) at the University of Otago to complete an internet based questionnaire (, and 1564 (82%) responded.3 We asked the students which of 11 secondhand effects they had experienced in the previous four weeks (table).1 Responses were none, once, two or three times, or at least four times. We assessed whether the respondent was a heavy drinker by asking how often they drank six or more drinks on a single occasion.4

Secondhand effects due to alcohol among university students experienced at least once in the four weeks before being asked. Values are numbers (incidence; 95% confidence interval)

View this table:

We obtained complete data from 1524/1564 (97%) respondents. Non-heavy drinkers included 62 abstainers and 191 drinkers who consumed fewer than six drinks on any single occasion. Incidence of any secondhand effect increased with the tendency to drink heavily. Logistic regression with adjustment for sex showed that, relative to 16-19 year olds, 20-24 year olds had similar odds of experiencing at least one secondhand effect (odds ratio 0.80; 95% confidence interval 0.58 to 1.09), and 25-29 year olds were at lower risk (0.17; 0.11 to 0.26).

A previous study considered only undergraduates in halls of residence or in fraternity or sorority houses—environments linked with excessive drinking.1 We found that being pushed, hit, or assaulted was 1.6 times more common (9% v 15%), unwanted sexual advances were 1.4 times more common (20% v 28%), and damage to property was 1.3 times more common (15% v 20%).


Secondhand effects due to drinking alcohol are more common among university students than previously thought—for example, a tenth of women and a fifth of men were assaulted at least once in the four weeks preceding our survey, and one fifth of students had their property damaged.1 Even non-heavy drinkers experienced several effects, some serious. Strengths of this study include the random sampling, the high response rate, and using a computerised questionnaire, a method known to increase reporting of high risk behaviour.5 Limitations include imprecision—for example, the seriousness of “crimes” is unspecified—reliance on respondents to attribute responsibility for the effect, and our focus on students alone.

The needs of the many non-drinkers and moderate drinkers who are harmed by heavy drinkers should be considered when devising local and national alcohol policies. Universities and colleges should tackle environmental risk factors for hazardous drinking—for example, the availability and promotion of alcohol on and around campus—and should provide screening and intervention services for students with patterns of hazardous drinking.


We thank Dorothy Begg and Margaret Geddis for comments on an earlier version of this paper.


  • Contributors JDL got funding for the study, designed the study, analysed the data, and wrote the paper. KK got funding for the study, designed the study, managed and analysed the data, and wrote the paper. SCRS managed and analysed the data and reviewed the paper. KK is guarantor.

  • Funding Health Research Council of New Zealand and Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Ethical approval University of Otago ethics committee.


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