Alcohol and Violence

Our Thinking

Although research does not show a causal link between alcohol and violence, it does show a correlation in some cases.  1 While most drinking is not associated with violence, it is largely agreed that drinking can sometimes exacerbate a hostile situation. The precise nature of the relationship between alcohol consumption and violence is not concrete.2

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Initiatives which reduce or prevent violent behavior in general
  • It is important to increase education about preventing violent behaviors through initiatives directed toward audiences in schools, local communities, and the population at large.
  • Included in such efforts should be programs which specifically address domestic violence and sexual assault. (See: for information on Center for Disease Control demonstration projects.)
  • Programs which offer training in anger management, particularly for violent offenders, should also be more accessible.
Programs that foster tighter social controls
  • Such programs are ideally collective, private-public efforts, but the involvement of law enforcement is essential.
  • Involving law enforcement as a partner in violence prevention is an important component of any such effort, and enforcement of responsible serving practices is also a critical part of this kind of initiative.
  • Two examples are the United Kingdom’s “Best Bar None” program ( and the UN Women’s Global Flagship Initiative, “Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces.” This initiative builds on the “Safe Cities Free of Violence against Women and Girls” Global Programme, launched in November 2010, with leading women’s organizations, community organizations, UN agencies, and more than 70 global and local partners. (See:
Responsible practices such as stopping the sale of alcohol at a point in time prior to the conclusion of large audience events such as concerts and sporting contests—which is common practice in the U.K. and U.S.

In the U.S., we support and are members of organizations like TEAM Coalition, which supports such efforts. TEAM (Techniques for Effective Alcohol Management), is an alliance of professional and collegiate sports, entertainment facilities, concessionaires, stadium service providers, the beer industry, distillers, broadcasters, governmental traffic safety experts, and others working together to promote responsible drinking and positive fan behavior at sports and entertainment facilities. Source:

Programs to help reduce heavy and problem drinking (including binge drinking)
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  • While it is largely agreed that drinking and violence sometimes coexist, the precise nature of the relationship between alcohol consumption and violence varies in different circumstances. In addition, violence in and of itself is known to have a number of possible contributing causes, ranging from psychology and biology to culture and family influence.1

    Research supports the assertion that there is a relationship between some forms of violence and certain drinking patterns. However, there is no research evidence that drinking causes violence.2

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    • 1. Moss, H.B., & Tarter, R.E. Substance abuse, aggression and violence. Am J Addict 2(2):149-160, 1993. White, H. R., & Gorman, D. M. (2000). Dynamics of the drug-crime relationship. In G. LaFree (Ed.), Criminal justice 2000 The nature of crime: Continuity and change (pp. 151–218). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
    • 2. Moss, H.B., & Tarter, R.E. Substance abuse, aggression and violence. Am J Addict 2(2):149-160, 1993. White, H. R., & Gorman, D. M. (2000). Dynamics of the drug-crime relationship. In G. LaFree (Ed.), Criminal justice 2000 The nature of crime: Continuity and change (pp. 151–218). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

    Research shows that higher rates of drinking, heavy drinking, and alcohol abuse are reported by violent offenders than the general population. The percentages of violent offenders reported to be drinking at the time of their offenses varies from study to study, but the association is reported consistently for crimes including homicide, assault, sexual assault, and domestic violence.1 (In addition, it has been pointed out that violent criminals who drink heavily are more likely than less intoxicated offenders to be apprehended and consequently may be over represented in samples of convicted criminals or arrestees.2 )

    Research evidence also establishes that violence is more likely to be associated with heavy drinking and alcohol abuse (versus light or moderate drinking).3 In particular, domestic violence, sexual assaults, and suicide are often associated with heavy drinking and alcohol abuse.4

    NIAAA estimates of sexual assault prevalence suggest that 25 percent of American women have experienced sexual assault. Approximately one-half of those cases are reported to involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, victim, or both. 19


    Violent behavior is rooted in an array of possible contributing factors. Neurotransmitters, genetics, hormones, demographic factors, parenting and parental behaviors, personality disorders, and social and cultural factors have all been documented as playing a role in violent behavior or tendencies for violent behavior.5

    Studies consistently show that alcohol may be related to violence among only certain individuals and only under some conditions or in certain situations.6 Thus research has tended to focus on why this is the case.


    One model used to explain the relationship between alcohol and violence focuses on its psychopharmacological effects—the way chemicals interact with an individual’s brain and affect thinking and behavior. If an individual’s cognitive processes are impaired by alcohol, his or her perception of interpersonal cues, behavioral inhibitions, awareness of consequences, and overall judgment could be affected. For example, someone who has been drinking heavily might overreact to a perceived threat, and fail to soundly assess the possible consequences of acting on a violent impulse.7


    Individual brain chemistry may provide an explanation for why excessive alcohol consumption is associated with aggression in some people, but not in others. For instance, serotonin essentially functions as a behavioral inhibitor in terms of brain chemistry, and lower serotonin activity is associated with increased impulsivity and aggressiveness. In experiments conducted with animals, monkeys with low serotonin activity consumed alcohol at elevated rates and demonstrated impaired impulse control, resulting in excessive and inappropriate aggression.8

    Hormones may also play a role in an association between certain individuals’ alcohol consumption and aggression. For example, in experiments with monkeys already known to have high levels of testosterone and aggression, the administration of alcohol has been associated with increased levels of aggressive behavior.9 Conversely, in experiments with monkeys already known to have lower levels of testosterone and aggression, alcohol intake was not associated with increased levels of aggressive behavior.10


    Another model used to explain the relationship between alcohol and violence focuses on expectations, and the possibility that alcohol consumption may be associated with aggression because people expect they might become violent. In research studies using both mock and real alcohol beverages, people who believe they have consumed alcohol began to act more aggressively, whether the beverage they consumed actually had alcohol content or not.11

    In addition, social researchers have described some bars and drinking establishments as locations which may be more likely (than, say, retail stores) to bring together potential offenders (heavy and problem drinkers) and possible targets of violence (other individuals who are drinking and may be impaired).12


    Researchers have identified cultural views as playing “an important role in defining drinking patterns and attitudes.”13 Studies confirm that “cultures in which alcohol use is well-integrated into everyday functions—as in Mediterranean countries—have much lower rates of alcohol-related violence than cultures where alcohol is not well-integrated—as in Nordic countries—or cultures that are ambivalent about the role of alcohol in society, as in the United States.”14

    In cultures where heavy drinking is less common, the association between drinking and violence tends to be lower. In cultures where heavy drinking is more common, we see higher levels of association between drinking and violence.15


    An increasing body of scientific evidence shows that the relationship between alcohol consumption and aggressive and violent behavior is not a direct causal link, but rather a complex interaction of biochemical, psychological, situational, and cultural factors.16 The evidence that alcohol does not appear to lead to aggression under non-provocative conditions17 provides additional support for the importance of measures designed to improve the management of drinking environments to avoid provocation to violence.

    The benefits of modifying the drinking context are supported by an increasing range of evidence, for example, the “Safer Bars” intervention in Toronto, which introduced constructive design principles such as padded furniture and compartmentalized space—resulting in a significant reduction in severe and moderate alcohol-related aggression.18 Other measures that have been recommended to reduce the likelihood of alcohol-related problems include: ensuring a clean, well-maintained environment; encouraging eating with drinking; toughened safety glass; and hiring and training bar staff capable of communicating effectively with people.

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  • Given the numerous factors which help to explain an association between alcohol and violence, a variety of approaches warrant consideration in policy development.


    There is evidence which supports the position that drinking heavily and behaving violently are related behaviors because they share common risk factors such as parental modeling of heavy drinking and aggression, genetic or psychological traits, disorders such as antisocial personality disorder, and cultural or sub-cultural (e.g. gang) influences.1 These insights are persuasive in asserting a need for targeted interventions in schools, local communities, and the population at large, with a particular focus on individuals and groups with known risk factors. Such programs range from social norms marketing (aimed at correcting peer misperceptions) to server training programs and life skills programs in schools and communities.2 For example, the international Strengthening Families Program (SFP) targets high-risk families and is designed to prevent youth substance abuse and other negative behaviors. (See

    One of the proven methods to actively prevent sexual assault or violence is through bystander intervention, which is the idea that both men and women can identify, step in, and interrupt situations in order to prevent violent situations from occurring (Cohen, 2014). Bystander intervention training is designed to change social norms and encourage people to find ways to identify and intervene.  The bystander intervention approach is key to finding and expanding the possibilities to stop sexual violence before it is perpetrated. It discourages victim blaming and offers the chance to change social norms. 4


    Some level of violent crime tends to occur in or around certain establishments such as bars, pubs, and night clubs—where heavy drinking is more likely to take place. Because of this association between drinking and violence, communities have launched collective approaches to discourage heavy drinking and violence in and around such locations. For example, in D.C.,  the Safe Bars organization uses innovative bystander education strategies to train and empower bar staff to intervene and potentially prevent sexual harassment and assault. (


    Appropriate training of hospitality staff and retailers is an important component of violence prevention efforts. Programs developed with this in mind include “RSA”(Responsible Serving of Alcohol) in Ireland, ServeWise in Scotland, “Think Before You Serve” in the Netherlands, and Training in Intervention Procedures (TIPS) in the U.S. TEAM (Techniques for Effective Alcohol Management) Coalition, also in the U.S., focuses specifically on training in sporting and entertainment venues.

    When it comes to consumption within the home, modifying the drinking environment generally entails ensuring that the host knows how to ensure a safe environment for guests. Examples of programs which offer guidance on responsible hosting include the “Host” initiative in Canada and the “Good Host Checklist” in the U.K.3

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    • 1. Fergusson, D. M., Lynskey, M. T., & Horwood, L. J. (1996). Alcohol misuse and juvenile offending in adolescence. Addiction, 91, 483–494. White, H. R., & Gorman, D. M. (2000). Dynamics of the drug-crime relationship. In G. LaFree (Ed.), Criminal justice 2000 The nature of crime: Continuity and change (pp. 151–218). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
    • 2. For a complete listing of targeted intervention examples worldwide, see the International Center for Alcohol Policies, Blue Book, Module 12. See:
    • 3. See:
    • 4.

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