After a “Lost Decade” – New WHO Alcohol Action Plan Offers Historic Chance to Address Health Risk to Billions
Pandemic lockdowns left billions of people confined to their homes for work and socialization.

Long months of pandemic lockdown have only exacerbated the harms due to alcohol  experienced by billions of people worldwide.  Now, WHO is in the process of developing a new alcohol action plan, in an effort to re-energize a stagnant process and overcome a “lost decade” of little progress on alcohol policies.  Can it make a difference? 

The coronavirus crisis has brought into clear focus how important health is – for people, our families, and our societies at large. We can see that people deeply care about both personal and public health.

At the same time, the pandemic has also made painfully obvious those  public health issues that have been neglected for too long. Billions of people remain unprotected against the harms caused by alcohol – harms also exacerbated as a result of the social and economic distress created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the adoption of the WHO Global Alcohol Strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol more than a decade ago, virtually no progress has been achieved in protecting more people from the harms caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry.

That is why the WHO process of developing a new global alcohol action plan, 2022-2030, mandated by the WHO Executive Board in February 2022,  matters so much. 

More can and should be done to accelerate action on alcohol harm as public health priority, commensurate with the health, social, and economic burden it causes.

Lost Decade

The last decade has been a lost decade for alcohol policy development. For example,  the global SDG target to reduce per capita alcohol use by 10% by 2030 will not be met according to current forecasts

Without action, Africa could see increases in both the absolute number and proportion of people consuming alcohol; amounts consumed per capita, as well as heavy episodic alcohol use. Southeast Asia has seen a 29% increase in per capita alcohol use since 2010. Only the WHO European region has achieved the voluntary target of a 10% reduction of per capita alcohol use – showing that transformative change through proven, high-impact alcohol policy solutions is possible.

However, so far, most countries, especially low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are affected by a heavy alcohol burden, and have NOT implemented a comprehensive set of alcohol policies. 

No low-income country has reported increasing resources for implementing alcohol policy in the last decade. Many countries are failing to implement the alcohol policy best buy solutions, with LMICs more likely to have fewer evidence-based and cost-effective policies.

Few countries use alcohol taxation for health goals 

Few countries impose taxes on alcohol purchases for public health goals.

Few countries use alcohol taxation as a public health policy to prevent and reduce harm and reinvest revenue in health promotion. Less than half of countries use price strategies such as adjusting taxes to keep up with inflation and income levels – which means alcohol has become more affordable in many parts of the world over the last decade.

Alcohol has also become more widely available. Less than one-third of countries have regulations on outlet density and days of alcohol sale. Some countries, mainly LMICs in Africa, still do not even have a legal minimum purchase age.

And alcohol marketing regulation continues to lag well behind technological innovations and e-commerce that stimulate alcohol consumption, including rapidly developing new delivery systems. Most of the countries that reported no alcohol marketing restrictions whatsoever across all media types were in the African or Americas regions – leaving their children, youth, and adults completely unprotected from the alcohol industry’s push to find ever more loyal consumers.

Alcohol industry profits from lax regulation, heavy consumption, and under-age sales 

Alcohol companies make profits from sales to youths

The alcohol industry profits from the current situation, and has been identified as a major obstacle to progress in promoting health through evidence-based alcohol policy solutions. Their fundamental conflict of interest has never been more clear. The biggest  profits reaped in by  Big Alcohol corporations come from heavy alcohol use. And the alcohol industry is also dependent on under-age alcohol use for their profits.

It is now time to learn the lessons from the current state of global alcohol policy. Country experiences around the world and scientific analysis reveal the strategies of the alcohol industry to misinform the public about the harm of their products, to delay, derail and even destroy alcohol policy development efforts, and to push ever more aggressively for new consumers and markets.

But we also know more about what solutions are effective to protect people and communities better from alcohol harm. Concrete examples show that the alcohol policy best buys hold vast potential to improve health, strengthen health systems, and generate returns on investment.

We know much more now about alcohol’s harms to health

And thirdly, we know much more today than in 2010 about alcohol harms and how to talk about these harms. It is proven that alcohol causes cancer and cardiovascular disease, among 200 other health conditions and diseases. 

And the scientific evidence today is unimpeachable that there is no safe or healthy amount of alcohol consumption, not for the heart, the brain, cancer, or mental health. But now it is important to raise awareness of both the public and policy makers. It is crucial to do away with myths and outdated language that do not reflect reality.

Historic opportunity 

This knowledge, and these insights, are what makes this opportunity historic. Now is the time to make the harm caused by the alcohol industry a public health priority. Now is the time to accelerate alcohol policy action.

For the next decade, the world needs a bold and ambitious new WHO Global Alcohol Action Plan

Bigger ambition means to focus more on alcohol policy “Best Buys” and WHO’s SAFER technical package to facilitate country action and impact on alcohol harm. Bolder efforts also mean to pursue targets that really make a difference in the lives and communities of people around the world.

WHO Best Buys for addressing alcohol’s harms

Countries should adopt a target to reduce per capita alcohol use by 2030 with 30%, and to maintain current levels of alcohol abstention. Bigger ambition also means to improve the alcohol policy infrastructure on all levels – learning from other public health priorities. A global ministerial conference on alcohol is needed to foster exchange and leadership, and cross-border collaboration, for instance. An inter-agency joint initiative to support alcohol taxation development is needed to accelerate action on high-impact alcohol policy, improve coordination, and unlock additional resources for alcohol prevention and control.

And bolder efforts also means that more work is needed to support countries in protecting alcohol policy development from alcohol industry interference.

The harm caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry affects all aspects of our societies. But this also means that alcohol policy action, driven by an ambitious new action plan, has the potential to help improve health and health systems, as well as economic productivity and growth, and social justice and equity.

Developing such an action plan that facilitates comprehensive country action on alcohol harm is a historic opportunity to contribute to creating a world where everyone, everywhere can reach the full potential of a long and healthy life.


Kristina Sperkova, international president of Movendi Int.

Kristina Sperkova is the International President of Movendi International, the world’s largest global social movement for development through alcohol prevention and control, including 130+ member organizations from 50+ countries. Movendi International is in Official Relations with WHO and in Special Consultative Status with the UN ECOSOC.  Ms. Sperkova is also part of the civil society working group on noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) that advises WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.


Image Credits: Movendi International, Neil Moralee/flickr , Jano Soto Cossio, WHO, Sophie Carroll/flickr, World Health Organization , WHO, 2017 .

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