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Alcohol’s harm to others as a research perspective – opportunities and challenges

  • Alkohol och narkotika

The Nordic Centre for Welfare and Social Issues co-hosted a Kettil Bruun Society thematic meeting on alcohol’s harm to others in Helsinki 14-17 September. Research from some 20 countries was presented during the conference and several reoccurring issues related to studying harm to others surfaced.

Causality one of the key questions

A key issue raised during the conference was the question of causality.

- Harm and experience of having been harmed by others drinking always derives from social interaction with other people, says researcher Christoffer Tigerstedt from the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland.

Experiencing harm goes beyond harmers and those harmed. Harm is defined by a number of circumstances and it is often unclear what may have contributed to experiencing harm. Does harm from others drinking originate in social problems or is it the cause of social problems? If both are true, how should such complexities be tackled when implanting research in advocacy and policy making?

Much of the research findings presented at the conference were based on cross-sectional data, that is, data from a specific group and a specific time. Increased research effort on the long-term effects of harm from others drinking would be one way of addressing the issue of causality.

- Studying cohorts over time, studying family units or households, or combining survey data on experienced harm from others data with registry and qualitative data are potential means of gaining a more comprehensive picture of how harm from others drinking is experienced and how it affects us, says researcher Anne-Marie Laslett from the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research in Australia.

Tolerance of harm varies

Another key-issue that was raised over the course of the conference was tolerance of harm.

- Harm may be tolerated differently in different countries and cultures, but tolerance may vary within countries depending on life-circumstances, age, place of residence and so forth. We need more information on how people actually define harm, says project manager Nina Karlsson from the Nordic Centre for Welfare and Social Issues.

Policy implications

On a policy level, the harm from others drinking perspective potentially has implications on a broad spectrum of public health, ranging from availability of alcohol to child protection services and the work life.

Implementing research findings on such a broad scale in societies where consumption of alcohol is more or less seen as norm, is challenging. It is important to keep in mind that approaching alcohol related harm from a harm to others perspective also includes potential increased marginalization and stigmatization of the drinker.

Despite these challenges, the harm to others perspective offers a valuable tool for surveying the effects of alcohol on our societies.

- In general the perspective creates a broader, deeper picture of alcohol-related harms. The perspective plays different roles in different drinking and control policy cultures. For some countries or regions it may start completely new social and political processes as well as research activities. For other countries with longer traditions of the societal liquor question, including traditions of alcohol control policies and alcohol research, the perspective may serve as a healthy and critical reminder, researcher Christoffer Tigerstedt points out.

The KBS thematic meeting was co-organized by the Nordic Centre for Welfare and Social Issues, the National Institute for Health and Welfare (Finland), the Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research (Norway), the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research (Denmark) and the Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs (Sweden).

KBS Thematic Meeting: Alcohol's harm to others - Perceptions, Policies and Approaches 14-17 September 2015

Kettil Bruun Society (new window)

Photographer: Fredrik Sjögren

Researcher Anne-Marie Laslett

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