Main problem and root causes

Alcohol and other drugs are obstacles to development – on personal, community, societal and global level.

Harmful substances, especially alcohol, are among the foremost underlying causes of premature death, disease, injury and violence, disability and quality of life years lost. Their damage reaches far beyond health concerns, affecting human beings’ potential, families’ wellbeing, communities’ resilience, socio-economic prosperity, sustainable development and global justice and Human Rights.

In 2015, governments of the world have recognized this through the adoption of the United Nations 2030 Agenda. Governments have committed themselves to “strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drugs and harmful use of alcohol.”

Almost two-thirds of the global adult population chooses not to use alcohol in any given year. Nevertheless, the alcohol use of one-third of the global adult population – fueled by an ever more aggressive alcohol industry – causes tremendous harm and costs.

Significant health, social, economic and Human Rights burden of alcohol

  • Alcohol kills 3 million people worldwide every year. This represents 5.9 % of all deaths.
  • Alcohol consumption is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions.

Alcoholic beverages are carcinogenic to humans”

International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 1988.
  • There is a causal relationship between alcohol use and a range of mental and behavioral disorders, other Non-communicable conditions, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, as well as injuries.
  • There is a causal relationship between alcohol use and incidence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis as well as the course of HIV/AIDS.
  • Overall 5.1 % of the global burden of disease and injury is attributable to alcohol, as measured in disability-adjusted life years.

Tremendous burden on the youth of the world

  • Alcohol consumption causes death and disability early in life – relative to other health hazards. In the age group 20 to 39 years of age about 25% of the total deaths are alcohol-attributable.
  • Beyond health consequences, alcohol harm causes significant social and economic loss to people, their communities and society at large.

Alcohol’s harm to others affects family members, friends, co-workers and strangers. Some examples are emergency room staff, police, taxi drivers, children from families with parental alcohol problems, children born with fetal alcohol syndrome, road traffic fatalities, or alcohol-related violence – especially gender-based violence.

  • Up to 80% of gender-based violence can be alcohol-related.
  • Alcohol is a major obstacle to sustainable development and economic prosperity.
  • Alcohol is the leading risk factor for death and disability among people aged 15 to 49 years worldwide. This is the age range when people are typically at their most productive economically.
  • The economic burden of alcohol worldwide is substantial, accounting for up to 5.44% of Growth Domestic Product in some countries.

The main problem: pervasive alcohol harm

Alcohol is major obstacles to sustainable development – on personal, community, and societal and global level.

The higher the alcohol consumption, the bigger the alcohol harm.

Serious, severe and pervasive consequences on all levels

The consequences from this problem are serious, severe and pervasive on all four levels.

Human being

  • Harmful substances negatively affect the quality of life and limit and erode human potential by adversely affecting health and well-being; by decreasing community engagement; and by undermining the person’s ability and opportunities to live up to one’s full potential.


  • Harm to others from alcohol and other drugs, such as domestic violence, child neglect or unsafe public space, hinders communities from thriving by fueling social exclusion; by driving inequalities within and among communities; by jeopardizing community resilience and well-being; and by eroding communities’ human capital.


  • Beyond the health and societal dimension, there is an economic dimension to harmful substances. For example, alcohol costs any society more than the alcohol trade adds to the respective economy. Alcohol harm undermines economic productivity and development as the leading risk factor for death and disability among 15 to 49-year olds, and substance use disorder likely results in billions of dollarsof lost wages. The alcohol industry externalizes most of these costs leaving societies, communities, and people behind while raking in windfall profits. For instance, in South Africa, the cost of alcohol harm was calculated to be as much as 12 % of the growth domes- tic product. In the European Union for instance, alcohol harm costs €156 billion every year.

Global justice, development, peace

14 out of 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals are adversely affected by alcohol-related harm – constituting a massive obstacle:

  • To ending poverty and hunger,
  • To achieving gender equality,
  • To ending violence against women and children,
  • To promoting health for all,
  • To creating inclusive communities,
  • To protecting precious water and food resources,
  • To achieving quality education for all, and
  • To promoting just and peaceful societies with democratic institutions.

Gigantic transnational corporations have institutionalized unethical business practices putting profits over Human Rights and undermining public policy processes and exploiting the most vulnerable people, communities and countries.

The root causes

The root causes to the main problem lie in several areas:

  1. Weakness of the social movement
    The social movement for the alcohol-free lifestyle, for curbing the alcohol industry and for advocating for and safeguarding alcohol policy implementation is too weak and shattered to be able to balance out the current forces fueling alcohol consumption and related harm.
  2. Lack of legislation
    Absence of comprehensive, effective, evidence-based, population-level alcohol policy solutions caused by lack of knowledge and political will among decision-makers.
  3. Corporate political activity
    Aggressive lobbying and other political interference of the alcohol industry in public policy-making processes and unethical business practices in areas such as marketing, science or corporate social responsibility.
  4. Alcohol norm
    The reign of the current pervasive alcohol norm fueled by anecdotal rather than scientific evidence; the current alcohol norm is glamorizing alcohol use and fueling the alcoholization of all social events; it is giving unfair and illogical privileges to those under the influence of alcohol and it helps excusing otherwise unacceptable behavior.
    The current alcohol norm is driving ever increasing physical, social, economical and psychological availability of alcohol. And it is fueling the stigmatization of alcohol-free choices as well as of people who have alcohol use disorders.
    The dominance of anecdotal evidence over scientific evidence and significant incoherence between the scientific evidence base about prevention and health promotion on one hand and the applied prevention methods on the other hand are contributing to the current harmful alcohol norm.
  5. Absence of treatment and recovery services
    The lack of help and support for everyone who needs help with substance use disorders.
  6. Inability to recognize the real effects of harmful substances
    The persistence of alcohol myths and the general illiteracy about corporate tactics, as well as the lack of awareness about the real effects of harmful substances and solutions to the problem.