It started as a humorous comment in the 1980s, satirising the older term passive smoking. Fortune magazine in 1988 sarcastically commented, “Can we doubt that ingenious researchers will ultimately calculate the toxic effects of passive drinking — errant molecules of alcohol from highballs in the box seats statistically killing innocents in the bleachers?”
Be careful what you laugh at, sometimes your jokes will come back to bite you. The idea of passive drinking has been put forward in all seriousness, at first by reports from the European Commission from 2003 onwards that worked towards creating a European Union alcohol strategy. These discussed the criminal, social and health harm caused by alcohol, in particular the effects on third parties — partners and children of people with alcohol-related problems, people injured by drunk drivers, accidental victims of drunken street fights — whose plight could be most simply summarised as the result of passive drinking.
The term began to appear in newspapers with serious intent from 2004 on. It became more widely known in the UK following a proposal in mid-March 2009 from the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, that a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol should be imposed on the sale of drinks to reduce alcohol consumption, a proposal that was instantly dismissed by the Prime Minister.
In his 2008 annual report Professor Liam Donaldson describes “passive drinking” as “a concept whose time has come”, noting that alcohol consumption has increased by 40% since 1970, the figure by which it has fallen in France and Italy.
Health Insurance and Protection Magazine, 2 Apr. 2009
“Passive drinking”, the effects that alcohol has on innocent people, should also be acknowledged, he said, likening the issue to passive smoking. And he called for a national consensus, prompted by the Government, that alcohol consumption should be substantially reduced.
Daily Mail, 17 Mar. 2009