One in five people in England have been harmed in some way by others’ drinking over the past year, suggest the results of the largest survey of its kind in the UK, published in the online journal BMJ Open.

Nearly one in 20 of them experienced aggression – physically threatened or hurt, or forced/pressurised into something sexual, the findings indicate.

The survey of 5,000 adults across England looked at the extent, type, and frequency of the harms associated with other people’s drinking, who is most likely to be affected, as well as who and what might be driving it.

The researchers drew on an extended Alcohol Toolkit Survey (ATS), carried out between November 2015 and January 2016. The ATS is a nationally representative household survey, which includes a new sample of adults every month.

The extended survey included 18 additional questions on a wide range of potential harms associated with other people’s drinking. These ranged from actual or threatened physical violence, through emotional hurt or neglect or having to care for someone whose drinking had resulted in illness/disability, to being kept awake at night because of associated noise and disruption.

Those who said they had been in any of these situations in the past 12 months were asked to say who had been responsible, and how often it had happened. They were also asked how much they drank themselves, using a validated measure (AUDIT) which identifies levels of hazardous/harmful drinking.

Of the 4,874 adults who responded, one in five (roughly 20%; n=980) said they had experienced at least one of the 18 harms as a result of someone else’s drinking over the past year.

The factors associated with experiencing harm were being of a young age (16–24), being of a white British ethnicity, having qualifications, living in private rented accommodation, having a disability, and being a hazardous drinker.

The most commonly reported harm was being kept awake at night (8%) or feeling anxious/uncomfortable at a social occasion (nearly 7%). But around one in 20 (4.6%; 225) said they had experienced violence/aggression – physically threatened or hurt, or forced/pressurised into sex.

When split by sex, men (5.3%) were slightly more likely than women (4%) to experience violence/aggression, while women were around twice as likely as men to say they had experienced emotional harm/neglect (just under 5% vs just over 2%).

While most harms were experienced less than monthly (75%), around 5% were experienced daily or near daily.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said: ‘This important study makes clear the very real impact a person’s alcohol consumption can have on the people around them.

‘While there is an awareness of the harms alcohol can cause an individual, the second hand harms associated with alcohol are also prevalent in society and, in some cases, happening frequently.

‘The survey highlights the scale and severity of the problem, including actual or threatened physical violence. Worryingly, nearly four in ten incidents of violent crime involve alcohol.

‘In many ways, people are experiencing harm linked to someone else’s drinking and we can’t accept this as the “norm”. The Government needs to take action and introduce a range of targeted, evidence-based measures, including minimum unit pricing, which would raise the price of the cheapest, strongest alcohol products and would go some of the way to reducing the alcohol-related harms people are suffering.’

As an observational and exploratory study, the results found do not establish any causal links. But as the largest survey of its kind in the UK, the research team observed that: ‘It is clear that [alcohol-related harm to others] is relatively prevalent and that some individuals experience harm frequently. The most prevalent harms could be considered insignificant, but even apparently minor harms such as sleep disruption can have an impact on health and quality of life, particularly if experienced persistently.’

They concluded: ‘Policies that focus on alcohol must take into consideration the impact of drinking on those other than the drinker.’