A brand-new study provides ground-breaking analysis showing that most European countries fail to address alcohol as obstacle to multiple other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) than health in the design of measures to make progress towards the SDGs. To make matters worse, inaccurate language related to alcohol harm indicates gaps in understanding of the extent of the alcohol burden and the consequences for sustainable development.
This first-of-its-kind study, published in the peer reviewed journal PLOS ONE, spotlights the need to improve countries’ recognition of alcohol harm as cross-cutting impediment to 14 of 17 SDGs and countries’ capacity to utilize alcohol policy solutions as catalyst for sustainable development.
In the ‘Decade of Action to deliver the SDGs’ there are less than eight years left to facilitate transformative change, and high-impact alcohol policy solutions hold significant potential to drive progress towards health and development for all.
Alcohol policy measures are an ignored catalyst for achievement of the sustainable development goals
Alcohol is, for example, a driver of poverty and hunger (SDG 1 and 2). The products and practices of the alcohol industry cause a significant and increasing global disease burden (SDG 3). Alcohol is a risk factor for violence (SDG 5 and 16), and it contributes to inequalities (SDG 5 and 10). The harm caused by alcohol companies undermines economic productivity and hinders economic growth (SDG 8), disrupts sustainable consumption (SDG 12) and adversely impacts the environment (SDG 6, 13 and 15).
But these effects are not considered by European countries in the design of measures to achieve these sustainable development goals. Effective alcohol policy solutions, the so called three best buys, are largely missing from transformative action that the Agenda 2030 calls for and that governments committed to.
Alcohol policy systematically neglected
The researchers developed a unique framework with 260 questions reflecting the three dimensions of alcohol-harm considerations: indication, action, and evaluation.
They analysed 36 VNRs of 32 European countries by first assessing them against the 260 questions to find out how they report on alcohol harm and whether they, in their action, refer to evidence-based, cost-effective alcohol policy solutions.
Afterwards the researchers used content analysis to assess the extent to which the countries addressed alcohol related harm, whether they refer to alcohol harm within SDG 3 (good health and well-being) or look beyond the health goal and consider alcohol harm having impact on goals other than the Goal 3.
- Nine countries (28.1%) did not mention alcohol in their report.
- Only eight countries (25%) mentioned one or more of the alcohol policy best buys among the actions they are taking to reduce alcohol related harm and only three (9.3%) explicitly elaborated on their impact on goals other than goal 3.
- Only five countries referred to the agreed indicator 3.5.2 measuring alcohol per capita consumption in the adult population.
Many of the remaining countries used a range of terminology rather than alcohol per capita consumption, including “excessive use of alcohol”, “heavy use”, “too much alcohol “, “harmful alcohol consumption”, “use among young people”.
Considering the enormous potential that implementing the alcohol policy best buys and reducing overall alcohol consumption can have on achieving the SDGs, the number of countries that considered the effects of the alcohol policy best buys in their VNRs is very low,” write researchers Sperkova, Anderson and Llopis.
[O]mitting the alcohol policy best buys and their impact on the achievement of the SDGs […] means a missed opportunity not only to share experience, insights, and knowledge about how to use them as a catalyst for sustainable development but also to start building a collective understanding that these solutions could be a part of a basic action package for sustainable development.”Sperkova K, Anderson P, Llopis EJ (2022) Alcohol policy measures are an ignored catalyst for achievement of the sustainable development goals. PLoS ONE 17(5): e0267010. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267010
Lack of precision and recognition of true extent of alcohol harm
The findings show that very few countries use a population level approach to alcohol harm and most of the countries expect their citizens to take personal responsibility for their alcohol consumption. Overlooking population-wide solutions is a missed opportunity to implement highly cost-effective, scientifically proven, high-impact solutions and facilitate transformative change to shift the world on to a resilient and sustainable path.
The study reveals that countries are often not precise in their definition of alcohol harm. This contributes to insufficient alcohol policy action and often to the choice of ineffective measures.
Although health is at the centre of Agenda 2030 and despite the strong relationship between health, wellbeing, and inequalities, consideration of this connection was rare. The choice of words indicates that governments continue to underestimate the full extent of alcohol harm and limit it to “alcoholism” and “excessive drinking”. Limiting the definition of alcohol harm to “alcoholism” only can be a partial explanation for the lack of attention to the most cost-effective population level alcohol policy solutions, according to the analysis.
Instead of utilizing the overall reduction of alcohol use as a catalyst for development, countries reported rather vague approaches to alcohol harm such as ineffective lifestyle campaigns or placing responsibility for alcohol harm solely on the individual. This framing prevents governments from seeing the broad impact of alcohol harm on education, equality, economic growth, and the environment. Governments are thus missing an opportunity to utilise the potential of alcohol policy best buys to accelerate progress towards multiple SDGs in a cost-effective and synergistic way.
Countries are not using alcohol policy to achieve sustainable development,” says lead author Kristina Sperkova, who is also International President of Movendi International.
Countries are failing to use the full potential of alcohol policy for sustainable development for a number of reasons. Part of it is that the misidentification of alcohol harm as only “alcoholism”, “abuse”, or “alcohol use disorder” eliminates their possibility to identify and recognise alcohol’s cross-cutting harm.
It is clear that flawed understanding of alcohol harm limits countries ability to use the full potential of alcohol policy for reaching development for all.”Kristina Sperkova, lead author and Movendi International President
Notes to the editor
More about the study
The available information about alcohol harm and the sustainable development goals presents three main categories of scientific analysis of the intersection of the two areas:
- description of the problem by exposing the intersection of alcohol harm and the achievement of sustainable development;
- emphasis of the importance of policy coherence, including alcohol policy, for achievement of the sustainable development goals; and
- analysis of the reasons for inconsistency in policy making, such as conflict of interest and alcohol industry interference.
Although there are several papers that examine the link between alcohol and sustainable development, the focus lays solely on SDG 3, while a systematic overview of how governments currently utilize the potential of alcohol policy solutions for achievement of sustainable development goals does not yet exist.
The analysed countries are often not precise in their definition of alcohol harm. This contributes to insufficient alcohol policy action and often to the choice of ineffective measures
Considering the enormous potential that implementing the alcohol policy best buys and reducing overall alcohol consumption can have on achieving the SDGs, the number of countries that considered the effects of the alcohol policy best buys in their VNRs is very low.
These findings show that very few countries reflect on the adverse effects of alcohol related harm on the society and sustainable development that they have committed to in 2015.
The findings also show that very few countries use a population level approach to alcohol related harm and most of the countries expect their citizens to take personal responsibility for their alcohol consumption. Overlooking population-wide solutions can mean a missed opportunity to implement highly cost-effective (and in the case of alcohol taxation even domestic resources mobilising) solutions and facilitate transformative change to shift the world on to a resilient and sustainable path.
Only 8 countries mentioned one or more of the alcohol policy best buys among the actions they are taking to reduce alcohol related harm. Only five countries (15.6%) wrote about the impact of one or more of the three alcohol policy best buys on the achievement of the SDGs and only three (9.3%) explicitly elaborated on their impact on goals other than SDG 3.
- Hungary referred to restricted alcohol availability in order to contribute to improved nutrition among children and youth (SDG 2);
- Finland referred to alcohol availability and its impact on social inclusion and poverty (SDG 10);
- Estonia highlighted the importance of the alcohol policy best buys for the creation of safer environments (SDG 11) and mentioned the importance of effective alcohol policy for the reduction of economic harm caused by alcohol that could be interpreted as enabling of economic growth (SDG 8).
Sperkova K, Anderson P, Llopis EJ (2022) Alcohol policy measures are an ignored catalyst for achievement of the sustainable development goals. PLoS ONE 17(5): e0267010. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267010
More about alcohol as obstacle to development and the SDGs
Through its multiple health, social and economic harms, alcohol is a massive obstacle to sustainable human development, adversely affecting all three dimensions of development and reaching into all aspects of society.
It is jeopardizing human capital, undermining economic productivity, destroying the social fabric and burdening health systems.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
Alcohol and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets.
This comprehensive agenda is a plan of action for humanity to tackle the world’s biggest problems – coherently and systematically. The 17 SDGs cover all three aspects of sustainable human development: the social, environmental and economic dimension.
The SDGs and their targets are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic prosperity – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.
With just 10 years to go, an ambitious global effort is underway to deliver the 2030 promise – by mobilizing more governments, civil society, businesses and calling on all people to make the SDGs their own. The Decade of Action calls for accelerating sustainable solutions to all the world’s biggest challenges – ranging from poverty and gender to climate change, inequality and closing the finance gap.
About Movendi International
With 130+ Member Organization from 50+ countries, Movendi International is the largest independent global social movement for development through alcohol prevention.
We unite, strengthen and empower civil society to tackle alcohol as serious obstacle to development on personal, community, societal and global level.