The spread of alcohol consumption behavior in a large social network

Ann Intern Med. 2010 Apr 6;152(7):426-33, W141. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-152-7-201004060-00007.


Background: Alcohol consumption has important health-related consequences and numerous biological and social determinants.

Objective: To explore quantitatively whether alcohol consumption behavior spreads from person to person in a large social network of friends, coworkers, siblings, spouses, and neighbors, followed for 32 years.

Design: Longitudinal network cohort study.

Setting: The Framingham Heart Study.

Participants: 12 067 persons assessed at several time points between 1971 and 2003.

Measurements: Self-reported alcohol consumption (number of drinks per week on average over the past year and number of days drinking within the past week) and social network ties, measured at each time point.

Results: Clusters of drinkers and abstainers were present in the network at all time points, and the clusters extended to 3 degrees of separation. These clusters were not only due to selective formation of social ties among drinkers but also seem to reflect interpersonal influence. Changes in the alcohol consumption behavior of a person's social network had a statistically significant effect on that person's subsequent alcohol consumption behavior. The behaviors of immediate neighbors and coworkers were not significantly associated with a person's drinking behavior, but the behavior of relatives and friends was.

Limitations: A nonclinical measure of alcohol consumption was used. Also, it is unclear whether the effects on long-term health are positive or negative, because alcohol has been shown to be both harmful and protective. Finally, not all network ties were observed.

Conclusion: Network phenomena seem to influence alcohol consumption behavior. This has implications for clinical and public health interventions and further supports group-level interventions to reduce problematic drinking.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Alcohol Drinking / psychology*
  • Family
  • Female
  • Friends
  • Health Behavior
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Regression Analysis
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Behavior*