Poverty is not merely material deprivation; poverty is more than lack of income; poverty is more than the absence of resources needed for material well-being — such as food, housing, land, and other assets. Poverty has multiple dimensions. Analyzing poverty through the lens of alcohol harm offers important insights for how to end poverty sustainably and comprehensively…

The vicious cycle of poverty

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” explicitly recognizes that poverty results not just from the absence of material resources. Poverty results from a complex mix of many different interrelated factors affecting the lives of poor people and communities. In this complex mix, alcohol is often found to be fueling the vicious cycle of poverty.

Seven Connections: alcohol causes poverty

Poverty is not merely material deprivation; poverty is more than lack of income; poverty is more than the absence of resources needed for material well-being — such as food, housing, land, and other assets. Poverty has multiple dimensions. Analyzing poverty through the lens of alcohol harm offers important insights for how to end poverty sustainably and comprehensively.

People living in deprived communities, people with lower socio-economic status are more exposed and more vulnerable to tangible problems and negative consequences of alcohol consumption.

Poverty is in many ways connected to alcohol and impacts all levels from individuals and families to communities and societies in general:

  • Evidence shows: In low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), the addictive nature of alcohol use tends to crowd out other more productive household spending.
    • Disastrous alcohol expenditure for its perceived symbolic value, when poor people get into lifelong debt, as the result of intolerable expenditure on a wedding or other special occasions. Celebrations allow a distancing from the poverty of everyday life, and the allure of a once in a lifetime expression of it can lead to a lifetime of ruinous consequences.
    • Disastrous spending of the little income and household budget that might be available delays or inhibits spending on other more important things such as education, healthy food, healthcare etc.
  • People living in deprived settings are less able to prevent others transgressing personal boundaries. People in those kinds of settings, find that others are allowed to impose their will on them when intoxicated.
    The combined effect of these two influences is quite vicious. People in poor communities, especially the less powerful members, are doubly vulnerable to allegedly ‘alcohol induced’ misbehavior.
  • Socio-economically exposed people are less able to avoid adverse consequences of their behavior due to a lack of resources.
  • People in deprived, marginalized and vulnerable communities have less extensive support networks, i.e. fewer factors or persons to motivate them to address alcohol problems. The process of marginalization and stigmatization related to alcohol use disorders, and the drift in social status that may result, may also cause significant social burden.
  • Causing disadvantages for children and adolescents: children bear a disproportionate burden of alcohol harm. Due to alcohol, parental roles are neglected and too often abandoned, wages are drowned in alcohol, household economy is ruined, jobs are lost and health issues even exacerbate the dire situation. All that has the effect that the scarce resources cannot be invested in healthy, nutritious food and children’s primary education and school material, often depriving children of their right to primary education.
  • These vulnerabilities are often passed on through the generations. This way, alcohol harm often contributes to the vicious cycle of poverty.
  • Alcohol is the leading risk factor for death and disability in large parts of the world including Southern sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe and most of Latin America.
    On societal level this means that alcohol drains precious and scarce resources and diverts them from building social welfare and healthcare systems that could provide support and help to victims of alcohol harm.

The costs of alcohol harm in LMIC erode society’s ability to build and invest in a system that could potentially mitigate some of the worst consequences of alcohol harm.

Ending poverty in all its forms

Alcohol harm in the global south is undermine the resilience of communities and it thus eroding societies’ capacity to end poverty.

To summarize these 7 pathways that I outlined above, one infographic is useful. It shows and visualizes how alcohol harm creates obstacles for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and undermines communities’ and societies’ resilience to overcome poverty.


The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, says:

Today, some 1 billion people live in extreme poverty and more than 800 million endure hunger and malnutrition.

But poverty is not simply measured by inadequate income. It is manifested in restricted access to health, education and other essential services and, too often, by the denial or abuse of other fundamental human rights.”

Above, I’ve outlined how alcohol harm poses a heavy burden on these aspects that Ban Ki-moon talks about: health, education, Human Rights. Poverty in all its forms can thus only be ended, if alcohol harm is being addressed systematically and comprehensively.

Community mobilization to help ending poverty

Poverty is a massive problem – complex, multi-faceted, and often entrenched over generations. But we also do know which public policy measures work for helping to end poverty. That’s the good message. 12 out of the 17 SDGs are negatively affected by alcohol. There 7 seven connections how alcohol causes poverty. But evidence-based alcohol policy measures do exist to help end poverty.

The three best buys in alcohol policy have proven potential, as our report shows:

Alcohol Taxation - Win-Win Measure for Financing Development

Alcohol Taxation – Win-Win Measure for Financing Development

To be clear, alcohol taxation and the other best buys are not magic measures. For all their benefits and cost-effectiveness we also need to be aware of the fact that in countries with low prevalence of alcohol use or with high proportion of consumed alcohol produced informally or illegally and, therefore, not covered by taxation, the cost-effectiveness of raising taxes on alcohol is less favorable.

In a world, where poverty stems from complex and interrelated factors affecting the lives of poor people and communities, alcohol policy interventions hold crucial potential. As alcohol is fueling the vicious cycle of poverty, the people who are suffering the most from alcohol harm need to be part of the solution. It’s the affected people and communities themselves, that are the best agents for change. It is them that experience and endure the reality of what I call the seven connections of how alcohol causes poverty. They know it – and empowering them to become advocates for change driven by policy is already a milestone in our global-local efforts to end poverty for good.