SDG 3.5 is the specific target that addresses alcohol as impediment to sustainable development. The changes were recommended following the ‘2020 comprehensive review’ conducted by the UN Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG). In the review process the alcohol industry lobbied effectively for a replacement of indicator 3.5.2 while Movendi International advocated for its retainment and refinement.
Refining SDG 3.5.2 Alcohol an obstacle to development
In 2019, it became clear that the alcohol industry front group International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD) was trying to exploit the annual review process of SDGs indicators to attack and undermine the SDG target on alcohol.
The inclusion of alcohol in the SDGs, specifically in SDG 3.5 highlights alcohol’s adverse effects on sustainable development.
Strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drug abuse and harmful use of alcohol,” reads the target.
The accompanying indicator has been widely agreed since 2015, when the 2030 Agenda was adopted by world leaders.
Harmful use of alcohol, defined according to the national context as alcohol per capita consumption [APC] (aged 15 years and older) within a calendar year in litres of pure alcohol.”
The APC indicator is well-established practice by the World Health Organization and its Member States to measure annual total per capita alcohol consumption. And the WHO NCDs Global Action includes a voluntary target agreed by Member States about reducing per capita alcohol use.
At least a 10% relative reduction in the harmful use of alcohol, as appropriate, within the national context by 2025.”
With this strong global consensus and evidence-base for the SDGs indicator 3.5.2, the UN Statistical Commission categorized it among so called “Tier I” indicators – the top tier in no need of any review.
Nevertheless, the alcohol industry lobby group pushed aggressively to undermine and cast doubt, which is illustrated by the orange highlight in a proposal document from August 2020 and in an overview document from June 2019. Proposing additional indicators effectively means to lobby for replacement, because it is consensus not to increase the number of SDG indicators if not absolutely necessary. But the alcohol lobby pushed for two additional indicators.
In the Open Consultation on Proposals received for the 2020 Comprehensive Review of SDG Indicators, Movendi International argued for the protection and refinement of indicator 3.5.2:
We support and welcome simplification of the language of APC indicator, as proposed by a member state. We would consider this simplification an improvement.
However, we reject the proposal to replace the current indicator with a new indicator of “age-standardized prevalence of heavy episodic drinking”.This proposal runs contrary to WHO recommendations, and WHO is the custodian agency of the SDG 3.5.2 indicator. It also goes against established practice in reporting by member states on progress towards SDG 3.5. The VNR processes at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development since 2016 have clearly showed that countries report on indicator 3.5.2 APC.”
This advocacy, including in collaboration with several Member States, seemed to be successful in both objectives: to protect the current indicator and to even improve it. The UN Statistical Commission decided to refine the indictor according to Germany’s proposal.
This new, refined indicator for alcohol as obstacle to development is a major victory for communities engaged in promoting development through alcohol prevention. The new language is not even more in line with the scientific evidence-base and much easier to understand for people and communities affected by and responding to alcohol harm.
And it is also a significant defeat for the alcohol industry lobby and their efforts to undermine scientific consensus.
In their submission to the UN Statistical Commission, the IARD – funded by the biggest alcohol producers in the world, including AB InBev, Heineken, Diageo, Carlsberg and Pernod Ricard – made a number of flawed and misleading claims, such as:
- “[APC] focuses solely on per capita consumption and does not measure alcohol-related harms”
- “[APC] is insufficient on its own to compare between Member States as it does not account for the size of the [alcohol consuming] population”
- “[APC] would not increase the reporting burden on Member States”.
These claims are disproven and debunked by world class science.
The WHO – the custodian agency for SDG 3.5 and its indicators – made a submission to the UN Statistical Commission itself stressing the evidence base, the reporting routine of countries and the effectiveness of the APC indicator in allowing national comparisons.
Secondly, in a sweeping rebuke of the alcohol industry lobby claims, Rehm, Crépault, Wettlaufer, Manthey, and Shield find in their comparison of APC with indicators suggested by the alcohol industry:
- Alcohol per capita consumption (APC) is greatly associated with harm and is available for almost all countries on a yearly basis as it is largely derived from routinely collected statistics.
- Heavy episodic alcohol use (HED) is based on responses to population surveys not routinely performed for most countries. These surveys commonly exclude heavy alcohol consuming populations (e.g. army personnel, institutionalised, homeless). Even when included within the sampling frame, heavy alcohol users are less likely to participate than other groups.
- The questions used to measure HED are susceptible to biases due to issues with respondents’ comprehension, recall and misreporting.
- In a regression analysis of 182 countries, APC was better at predicting alcohol‐attributable harm than HED. APC was also correlated with changes in the alcohol‐attributable burden of disease (from 2010 to 2016), while HED was not.
UN Statistical Commission Adopts 36 Changes to SDG Indicators
The UN Statistical Commission met for its 51st session in New York, U.S., from March 3-6, 2020.
Introducing the IAEG’s report on the proposed changes on March 3, 2020, IAEG co-chair Viveka Palm (Sweden) said the Group had developed 36 “major changes” to the framework, including by replacing, revising, and deleting current indicators, as well as adding new ones. In total, the revised framework would have 231 indicators, approximately the same number as in the original framework. She also provided an oral update to the report, noting that on indicator 3.8.1, the refinement has been changed to “coverage of essential health services,” meaning that the indicator “basically goes back to what it was before.”
According to reporting from IISD, Ms Palm also highlighted that:
- The IAEG proposes establishing a working group for measuring development support more broadly than through official development assistance (ODA) – “total official support for sustainable development (TOSSD)”. An additional indicator on TOSSD had been proposed during the comprehensive review process, but members differed over the methodology. The Group agreed to work further on this potential indicator for submission to the Commission in 2022, and to establish a working group to this end.
- Data disaggregation is a main area of work for 2020, to ensure “no one is left behind,” and the IEAG aims to develop guidelines on tools and methodologies on data disaggregation and to help build national capacity; and
- The Group has issued a report on interlinkages between the Goals and targets both statistically and through a policy and legislation lens, to support deeper analysis of the 2030 Agenda.
Member States, some of whom are IAEG members, made numerous remarks. Several Member States welcomed the fact that the changes to the framework had been limited so as not to increase the overall burden on national statistical organizations, while increasing the quality of the framework. Some Member States expressed support for specific changes:
- The addition of an indicator on civil justice (16.3.3),
- The addition of an indicator on total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per year (indicator 13.2.2), and
- In a revision to indicator 15.9.1, the integration of biodiversity into national accounting under the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting.
IISD reporting further details negotiations about the draft decision of the UN Statistical Commission, outline significant conflict lines. For example, Member States expressed concerns about the proposed deletion of indicator 8.9.2 on the proportion of jobs in sustainable tourism industries out of total tourism jobs.
China voiced concern about, among others, the addition of the GHG emissions indicator.
The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) lamented the lack of an indicator for older persons under SDG target 2.2. on malnutrition.
The African Group recommended reinforced collaboration and coordination with regional commissions.
Revisiting the discussion on 6 March 2020 with the aim of approving the Commission’s report on the proposed changes (E/CN3/2020/L.3, draft decision 1), many delegations reiterated their concern about deleting indicator 8.9.2 on sustainable tourism employment.
The Director of the UN Statistics Division Stefan Schweinfest recalled that the comprehensive review process had been lengthy and “very complex” and had resulted in a “package deal.” This would make reconsidering the decision on one indicator a “dangerous path,” he said, urging delegations to accept the premise of a compromise. Speaking on the “painful” impacts of deleting 8.9.2, Suriname urged that the report reflect that “part of the Commission does not accept this…. Some countries are saying this is not okay.”
The report of the IAEG was adopted as orally revised, and it “agreed to and adopted the proposed major changes and minor refinements … while noting concerns regarding specific indicators, and recognized that the work on SDG indicators is work in progress.” The amended text also indicates that the IAEG is requested to continue its annual refinement, research and methodological work including on “policy issues such as sustainable tourism and climate change.”