Applying a ‘Harm to Others’ research framework to illicit drugs research: political discourses and ambiguous policy implications

Stream: Young people, health and drugs
Date: Tuesday, 10 September 2019
Time: 10.55 am – 12.35 pm


Over the past decade, ‘alcohol’s harm to others’ (AHTO) has emerged as an active international approach to studying alcohol problems and policy. For example, the WHO has adopted AHTO as a stream of work in its global strategy to reduce harmful alcohol use. This approach seeks to increase political will for alcohol policy by mapping, measuring and often costing harms beyond the drinker. The approach follows the way ‘passive smoking’ was considered in the debate and development of tobacco policy.

In this paper we consider applying a harm to others approach to illicit drugs research. We ask whether it could and should be used as a policy tool, given the high risks of further stigmatising people who use drugs. This leads to considerations of the ways in which ‘harm to others’ does generate stigma; and the ways in which stigmatising certain behaviours (such as smoking tobacco) are seen by some as useful policy levers. Having identified what we see as the crucial issues in applying ‘harm to others’ in illicit drugs policy, we then reflect back on its current uptake in alcohol policy, to examine whether these concerns have been raised, managed or ignored. The extent to which we should constrain certain research approaches for vulnerable populations is a difficult ethical issue, and while this paper explores this in relation to illicit drug use (as compared to alcohol or tobacco use) this applies equally to other vulnerable groups, such as people who are unemployed or in receipt of social welfare.


Claire Wilkinson (Presenter), Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney
Dr Claire Wilkinson is a Research Fellow at the Drug Policy Modelling Program (DPMP) at the Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW. She is an NHMRC Early Career Fellow (2018 to 2022). Claire’s research on alcohol policy is multidisciplinary drawing on public health, public policy, policy-making and implementation science as well as historical perspectives. Claire uses qualitative and mixed methods.

Alison Ritter, Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney
Professor Alison Ritter is an internationally recognised drug policy scholar and the Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program (DPMP) at the Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW. She is an NHMRC Senior Research Fellow leading a multi-disciplinary program of research on drug policy. The goal of the work is to advance drug policy through improving the evidence-base, translating research and studying policy processes.