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Belgium presents updated plan to limit alcohol abuse

16:09 12/11/2022

The Belgian government’s Alcohol Plan is finally making substantial progress after 10 years worth of attempts from the health sector to reign in substance abuse.

Measures include limited alcohol sales and restricted advertising with the ultimate goal of reducing excess consumption.

Specifically, Belgium hopes to reduce excess alcohol consumption by 20% by 2028 and to reduce incidents of driving under the influence by 50%.

“This plan is eagerly awaited,” said Martin de Duve, director of non-profit organisation Univers Santé (UCLouvain) and a doctor who specialises in treating alcoholism.

Michel Evens, a psychiatrist and spokesperson for Alcoholics Anonymous, confirmed that “there was a lot of impatience” surrounding the plan’s creation and approval, adding that “Belgium is a bad pupil”.

In terms of what the Alcohol Plan actually entails, one of the key components is a ban on the sale of alcohol in various places, including motorway service areas, vending machines and in hospitals.

But the ban on alcohol sales at petrol stations was far from unanimously supported, and efforts to ban the sale of alcohol from so-called 'night shops' - convenience stores which are open later than traditional grocery stores, sometimes even all night long - failed.

“It is regrettable,” Evens said. “People can go and get alcohol at any time, at any hour, just because we want to. This is a real problem.”

The plan also includes changes to the ways in which alcohol is allowed to be advertised. On the table is a proposal to ban advertising alcoholic beverages in all programmes aimed at minors, whether that be in cinemas where films are shown, or on television, the radio or digital media.

While Alcoholics Anonymous calls this measure “crucial”, Univers Santé described it as “largely insufficient”.

“How are we going to determine what a programme 'mainly dedicated to minors' is?” questioned de Duve.

“This will do nothing to protect young people from the omnipresence of alcohol advertising, which is broadcast everywhere.”

A third measure involves setting a minimum price for alcoholic drinks, with the idea of eliminating easy access to cheap products.

According to the World Health Organisation, taxation is the most effective measure for protecting young people from the harmful effects of alcohol, and a 15% tax would prevent one third of alcohol-related deaths.

But this is another measure that is not receiving unanimous support. Many of Belgium’s political parties have already given a ‘hard no’ to the idea of a minimum price, which de Duve of Univers Santé chalks up to industry influence.

“The brewing industry obviously has a lot of influence on the government, so this is systematically blocked,” de Duve said.

Evens of Alcoholics Anonymous echoed the sentiment, saying: “The lobbies are very powerful and are capable of putting the brakes on a lot of things.”

But the Belgian Federation of Wines and Spirits insists that it supports the overall objective of reducing excess consumption, calling itself “a partner in the fight against alcohol abuse”.

Nevertheless, the federation opposes a minimum price without economic support for small businesses.

“Most of our members are small and medium-sized enterprises and are struggling to stay afloat,” a spokesperson for the federation said, calling a minimum price “counter-productive” and adding that this “would only encourage cross-border shopping”.

Another unpopular measure was the banning of happy hours, which has since been removed from the latest draft.

The minimum age for buying alcohol is also intended to stay the same, at 16 for beer and wine, and 18 for other spirits. But purchase of fortified wines such as sherry would be prohibited for those under the age of 18.

This distinction remains based on the nature of the beverage and not the degree of alcohol contained within it, which has caused concern among health professionals and even the Belgian Federation of Wines and Spirits.

“There is no need to make a difference between a glass of wine, spirits or beer,” said the federation.

“They can contain the same number of grams of pure alcohol. The rules should be clear to everyone. For us, the minimum age should be 18 years and that's it.”

And while the Alcohol Plan says it will provide better support for people with alcohol problems, the details are remain unclear.

“We are very worried because the ambition is there but the actions taken look very weak,” de Duve said.

It’s estimated that 15% of Belgians consume alcohol in excess and 7% have developed an addiction. An estimated 13.5% of deaths among 20 to 39-year-olds are due to alcohol.

Written by Helen Lyons