Alcohol is a leading contributor to death and disability worldwide, but the global public health response to the harms of alcohol use is not commensurate with alcohol’s social, economic and health burden.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally, approximately 3 million people die each year as a result of harmful alcohol consumption. More than half of these deaths are from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer and heart disease. Many millions more suffer as a consequence of their own or someone else’s alcohol use. Alcohol is also a cause of violence and injuries, and plays a role in susceptibility to diseases such as tuberculosis (TB). The economic toll amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars, and alcohol-related harm is a significant burden to health and development in low- and middle-income countries.  

Given the clear harm alcohol can cause, reducing alcohol consumption has been recognized as a priority of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Governments have committed to a target of reducing harmful use of alcohol by 10 percent by 2025, and the WHO Global Strategy on Reducing the Harmful Use of Alcohol provides a roadmap for international and country action.

Alcohol use is strongly influenced by social context, laws and policies, and corporate practices, including marketing. As such, the public health response should be as robust as that for tobacco and, more recently, sugary beverages, and countries should adopt the strategies that are known to work to reduce harmful use.  Such measures include increasing prices via taxation to deter purchasing and consumption, especially among youth; restricting advertising and other marketing; and regulating the age of purchase and times and places alcohol can be sold.  

Despite clear evidence of the harm alcohol causes, this public health threat has not been adequately acknowledged or addressed.  In contrast to the growing response to other drivers of noncommunicable diseases, governments have paid too little attention to alcohol policy. Instead, too often, it is left to the alcohol industry to drive how alcohol is regulated, viewed and consumed.

This document attempts to clarify and articulate the key issues that need to be addressed to encourage coherent alcohol policies. It is being launched in a crucial year for alcohol control advocacy.  In 2018, governments will return to the United Nations for the third UN High-Level Meeting on NCDs to review global progress and adopt new commitments for action. We hope this document will be useful to advocates in noncommunicable disease prevention and control, food policy, injury and violence prevention, mental health, substance abuse prevention, gender-based violence prevention, and other sectors.

The most important attribute of the messages in this document is that they are science-based. Only through rigorous fidelity to facts and evidence will the public health response to the harms of alcohol advance and successfully counter misinformation from the alcohol industry. Our intent is that this document will be used to advance alcohol policies to save lives and reduce suffering.