Tackling Alcohol as Obstacle to Development: Alcohol Policy as Catalyst for Progress Towards the SDGs

In 2015, all Member States of the United Nations (UN) adopted the so called 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development1. It was a historic moment of consensus and joint commitment to building a better world for all. The 2030 Agenda provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity, for people and the planet. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 concrete targets for all governments to work towards – and achieve by 2030.

Beer bottles.

The SDGs and their targets are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing. 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. Across these dimensions of the SDGs – the social, environmental, and economical – cuts alcohol harm, making it a serious obstacle to sustainable development.

Alcohol is a major obstacle to sustainable development
The products and practices of the alcohol industry cause and fuel health, social and economic harms. They affect all aspects of society: jeopardizing human potential, undermining economic productivity, destroying the social fabric, and burdening health systems, and even damaging biodiversity, water and food security and contributing to the climate crisis.
Global leaders recognized that the products and practices of the alcohol industry harm sustainable development by including a specific target on alcohol among the SDGs. Alcohol is specifically mentioned in SDG 3 on health and well-being.

Target 3.5 reads: “Strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drug abuse and harmful use of alcohol”.

  • Alcohol is a cross-cutting risk factor in many areas of the 2030 Agenda. Analysis shows that alcohol adversely affects 14 out of 17 SDGs and a total of 54 targets3:
  • Eradicating poverty.
  • Ending hunger.
  • Ensuring healthy lives for all.
  • Ensuring quality education.
  • Achieving gender equality.
  • Ensuring drinking water for all.
  • Promoting decent work and inclusive, sustainable economic growth for all.
  • Reducing inequalities.
  • Making cities safe and inclusive.
  • Ensuring sustainable consumption.
  • Combating climate change.
  • Protecting terrestrial ecosystems.
  • Promoting peaceful and inclusive societies; and
  • Revitalizing the global partnership for the SDGs.

To illustrate how alcohol impedes development three concrete SDGs, one from each dimension of sustainable human development, can help.

Regarding the social dimension: The products and practices of the alcohol industry impede achieving gender equality (SDG 5)3 by fueling violence against women, by fueling alcohol harm in women, and by perpetuating the sexualization and objectification of women in alcohol advertising. For instance, the World Health Organization4 identifies alcohol as key risk factor for violence against women. Ca. 65% of women experiencing intimae partner violence in India, Vietnam, Uganda, Zimbabwe, or South Africa reported the perpetrator had used alcohol4.

Regarding the environmental dimension: Alcohol production is highly water intensive (SDG 6) 3 ; as water shortages and drought become an increasingly global reality, the production of wine and beer contributes to water insecurity and drought. Projections show that by 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions. But wine production is exacerbating water-stress, scarcity, and drought. To get one liter of wine, 870 liters of water are needed5. Also, the water footprint of beer is horrific5. Per one liter of beer, 298 liters of water must be used.

Regarding the economic dimension:
Alcohol harm causes serious economic damage; countries and communities lose productivity and economic growth due to alcohol on massive scale (SDG 8) 3 . A recent OECD report showed that due to alcohol the growth domestic product (GDP) will be 1.6% lower on average in OECD countries annually, over the next 30 years6.

These facts are just the tip off the proverbial iceberg. We also know that alcohol harms young people disproportionately7. Alcohol is the largest risk factor for disease burden in the group 25 to 49 years8. This means that alcohol causes severe loss of human potential.

Analysis of alcohol’s impact on the SDGs shows that alcohol harm is pervasive9. The economy, the social fabric and equality, the healthcare system, and the environment are all impacted negatively by the products and practices of the alcohol industry.

But this also means that alcohol policy solutions hold significant potential not only for public health but also for other aspects and dimensions of sustainable development.

Alcohol policy as Catalyst for Progress Towards the SDGs

In fact, Mr. Dudley Tarlton, Programme Specialist for Health and Development at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), said it best at this year’s WHO alcohol policy forum (FADAB3) when he spoke about why UNDP is working with alcohol policy solutions:

There are very few actions that can accelerate progress as much as alcohol policy can.

Such a one-liner is powerful and summarizes comprehensive analysis shortly.

The so-called alcohol policy best buys are raising alcohol prices through excise taxes, banning alcohol advertising, and reducing the physical availability of alcohol. In the last decade, independent scientific evidence has become so abundant that it is very well proven now that these three alcohol policy solutions are cost-effective, high-impact and evidence-based. And it is possible to show how they are catalysts for the SDGs.

For instance, a Bloomberg Philanthropies inquiry showed that the implementation of the three alcohol policy best buys would result in a return on investment of $9 for every $1 invested10. Given alcohol’s economic harm, this means a lot for advancing sustainable development.

Another example comes from the WHO – notably already in 2010 – and shows the potential of alcohol taxation:

“Raising taxes on alcohol to 40% of the retail price could have [a big] impact. Estimates for 12 low-income countries show that [alcohol] consumption levels would fall by more than 10%, while tax revenues would more than triple to a level amounting to 38% of total health spending in those countries. Even if only a portion of the proceeds were allocated to health, access to services would be greatly enhanced,” according to the World Health Report 2010 11.

Implementing evidence-based alcohol taxation reaps significant benefits across multiple SDGs.

There is also strong evidence that raising alcohol taxes is a triple win solution for sustainable development:

  1. It reduces the burden of alcohol as obstacle to health and development for all.
  2. It helps promote health and well-being.
  3. It helps raise domestic resources for much needed investments in programs, services, and campaigns.
    Reduced harm and costs combined with increased resources – that is a formula for success in reaching the SDGs and alcohol policy an important part of the solution. All aspects of sustainable development stand to benefit and the most vulnerable people and communities will benefit the most from alcohol policymaking to reach the SDGs.

Maik Dünnbier
Director of Strategy and Advocacy
Movendi International
September 2021


  1. United Nations (UN). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
  2. United Nations (UN). The 17 Goals.
  3. Movendi International (2020). Alcohol obstacle to development. How Alcohol Affects the Sustainable Development Goals. Stockholm, Sweden.
  4. WHO (2006). Intimate partner violence and alcohol Fact Sheet.
  5. Hoekstra, A. & Water Footprint Network (2017). Product gallery Water footprint.
  6. Movendi International (2021). New OECD Report Summary: Governments Should Step Up Efforts to Prevent, Reduce Alcohol Harm.
  7. Movendi International (2020). Landmark Study Shows Failure in Tackling Preventable Disease.
  8. GBD 2019 Risk Factors Collaborators (2020). Global burden of 87 risk factors in 204 countries and territories, 1990–2019: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019. The Lancet, 396(10258): 1223-1249.
  9. Movendi International. Alcohol is a major obstacle to sustainable development. [Accessed September 2021].
  10. Movendi International (2018). Alcohol Policy Best Buys Top Investments For Health, Economy.
  11. WHO (2010). The world health report: health systems financing: the path to universal coverage.