Wilsnacks are part of worldwide research project on alcohol’s harm to victims

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News Article

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School of Medicine & Health Sciences


GRAND FORKS, N.D.—Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor Sharon Wilsnack, Ph.D., and Professor Emeritus Richard Wilsnack, Ph.D., will lead the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences’ effort in a worldwide research project to study the harmful effects on persons by the alcohol drinking of others.

Research on the harmful effects of alcohol has traditionally focused on how heavy drinking creates various problems for the drinker himself or herself (for example, negative effects on the drinker’s health, financial problems, accidents, and injuries). Recently, however, researchers have started also to study ways in which heavy alcohol use harms persons other than the drinker—for example, alcohol-related sexual and other assaults, abuse or neglect of children, intimate partner violence, or property damage.

The Wilsnacks are a husband and wife research team at the UND SMHS that recently received a four-year, $525,892 grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a part of the National Institutes of Health.

Sharon, a psychologist, and Richard, a sociologist, are professors in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the SMHS. The title of their project is “Alcohol’s Harm to Others: Multinational Cultural Contexts and Policy Implications.” In the current project, the Wilsnacks’ research will be part of a larger project that will be conducted at six institutions around the world: two in the United States, and one each in Australia, Canada, Denmark, and Switzerland. Assisting the Wilsnacks from the SMHS Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science will be Associate Professor Arlinda Kristjanson, Ph.D., and computer specialist Perry Benson, Ph.D.

“Our new research grant is the first large-scale study of how alcohol’ s harms to others (sometimes abbreviated ‘H2O’) vary in type, severity, and prevalence across various cultures worldwide,” Sharon said.

For more than 35 years, the NIAAA has funded the Wilsnacks’ research, totaling about $15 million of funding to them and UND. They directed a longitudinal study of drinking behavior in U.S. women, and they coordinate an international project on gender and alcohol titled GENACIS (Gender, Alcohol, and Culture: An International Study), which is a multinational study of cultural and gender-related influences on the alcohol use patterns of women and men. GENACIS has conducted comparable surveys of women’s and men’s drinking in 38 countries throughout the world—on every continent except Antarctica.

In the new project, 22 GENACIS data sets will be used to identify characteristics of persons (perpetrators) whose drinking harms other people. Sixteen data sets from a World Health Organization–related project and from several separately funded surveys will be used to identify characteristics of victims: persons who are harmed by the drinking of other persons. Taken together, the nearly 40 country data sets will represent the largest and most diverse set of cultures ever assembled to study how heavy drinking harms individual drinkers and the persons they encounter.

“Identifying characteristics of persons whose heavy drinking is especially likely to harm other persons can suggest subgroups of drinkers that should be high priority for targeted prevention and intervention efforts,” Richard said. “Understanding more about persons who are harmed by others’ drinking may point to new ways of ‘buffering’ or protecting such persons from harmful effects of alcohol.”

Another aim of the project will be to study regional variations in the effectiveness of alcohol policies.

Individual states or provinces in larger countries such as the United States and Canada have policies that try to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol, for example, policies that control the price of alcohol, or the location or density of businesses that can sell or serve alcohol, or that make certain alcohol-related behaviors (such as driving while intoxicated) illegal. However, these policies are not equally effective in all countries or regions.

“The new grant will analyze regional differences in a number of variables,” Richard said, “including age, gender, or ethnic makeup of the region; economic characteristics, such as wealth, poverty, or income inequality; and types of drinking cultures, for example, frequent but light or moderate drinking versus less frequent but extremely heavy drinking, that may influence how the same alcohol policies have different effects on the extent or severity of alcohol's harms in different regions within or across countries. Identifying factors that influence the effectiveness of alcohol policies could have extremely important implications for increasing the policies’ effectiveness by trying to improve the ‘match’ of specific policies with specific cultural characteristics and/or by trying to reduce certain cultural conditions that seem to be barriers to alcohol policies’ effectiveness.”

“We are delighted to again be working with international colleagues with whom we have collaborated in a number of previous studies,” Sharon said.

On the current project, their colleagues include Dr. Tom Greenfield, Emeryville, Calif., and Dr. Kim Bloomfield, Copenhagen, Denmark, who with Sharon Wilsnack are multiple principal investigators on the project. Other key collaborators are Dr. Kathryn Graham, London, Ontario; Drs. Sandra Kuntsche and Gerhard Gmel, Lausanne, Switzerland; Drs. Robin Room and Anne-Marie Laslett, Melbourne, Australia. Consultants on the project are Drs. Florence Kerr-Correa, Brazil; Vivek Benegal, India; Isidore Obot, Nigeria; Thaksaphon (Mek) Thamarangsi, Thailand and India; and Sarah Roberts, United States.

“Findings from this project could help identify subgroups of drinkers at particularly high risk for causing harms to other persons,” Sharon said. “Targeted prevention programs could then be designed to reduce these persons’ risks of heavy drinking. In addition, the study could identify specific social or cultural conditions that reduce the effectiveness of alcohol policies, for example, a drinking culture of occasional but extremely heavy drinking. This in turn might suggest programs for altering these cultural conditions in a way that would make them lesser barriers to effective alcohol policy.

“We also hope that—similar to how research on effects of second-hand smoke helped anti-tobacco efforts—our research on ‘second-hand effects’ of heavy alcohol consumption may help policymakers better understand the enormous economic and human costs of alcohol abuse and addiction.

“One area of future research we are interested in is gender-targeted alcohol advertising and its effects, particularly in lower-income countries, for example, in Africa, where rates of abstention among women have traditionally been high.”