The alcohol policy roundtable in the Netherlands has been discontinued by Maarten van Ooijen, the State Secretary for Health, Welfare and Sport. In his letter on the decision to the House of Representatives he explained that the roundtable had a delaying effect on alcohol policy making instead of accelerating action on alcohol harm. This delaying effect was due to the alcohol lobby having a seat at the table and obstructing evidence-based alcohol policy making.

Dutch State Secretary stops alcohol roundtable

Today, Dutch State Secretary for Health, Welfare and Sport Maarten van Ooijen sent a letter to Parliament informing that the Alcohol Roundtable of the National Prevention Agreement will be discontinued. At the Alcohol Roundtable, all stakeholders in the Netherlands (alcohol industry, retailers, catering, students, local governments, health organizations, and academia) discussed the future of alcohol policy and the necessary measures to achieve the targets set in the National Prevention Agreement.

As reasons for the decision to discontinue the roundtable, the State Secretary has cited the lack of progress in achieving the goals of the National Prevention Agreement of 2018, the differences in opinion between the alcohol industry groups and public health organizations at the roundtable, and the failure of the roundtable to generate necessary policy solutions to better protect public health.

The pace at which the prevention agreement goals are approaching is disappointing,” wrote Maarten van Ooijen, the State Secretary for Health, Welfare and Sport, in his letter to the House of Representatives, as per the Dutch Government website.

Recent figures on substance use among young people and compliance with the age limit for alcohol confirm this. The consultations at this table have not resulted in necessary and additional effective measures to protect public health.”

Maarten van Ooijen, State Secretary for Health, Welfare and Sport, the Netherlands

In his letter, Van Ooijen writes that the consultations at the Alcohol Table have not led to necessary and additional effective measures to protect public health. And also that the urgency to reduce alcohol harm is great and requires a new active phase. 

Van Ooijen attributes the lack of progress to the fact that the differences between the positions and interests of, for example, alcohol producers and health organizations appear to be unbridgeable. He believes stopping the Alcohol Roundtable is disappointing, but inevitable.

Wim van Dalen, director of the Dutch Institute for Alcohol Policy STAP said:

The failed Alcohol Roundtable in the Netherlands has confirmed what was already known from experiences in other European countries: involving the alcohol industry in the consultation on alcohol policy does not take us any further and at least ensures postponing necessary measures.”

Wim van Dalen, Director, STAP

The National Prevention Agreement of 2018 was watered down by the alcohol industry lobby

As Movendi International previously reported, the National Prevention Agreement (NPA) of the Netherlands was signed by 70 parties on November 23, 2018.

The NPA’s sub-agreement on alcohol included ambitious targets to be achieved by 2040:

  • Reducing binge alcohol use among young people by 30-40%,
  • Reducing heavy and high-risk alcohol use by 40%, and 
  • Cutting in half the use of alcohol by pregnant women.

Leading up to the NPA, the alcohol policy roundtable was set up in early November 2018 to work together on effective policy solutions to reduce the alcohol problem in the Netherlands. Apart from civil society organizations and academic and research groups, controversially, this roundtable included alcohol industry bodies. Major alcohol industry lobby group The Foundation for Responsible Alcohol Consumption (STIVA) was one of the alcohol industry groups included in the roundtable.

The alcohol industry used its position at the alcohol policy roundtable to water down this sub-agreement on alcohol. Alcohol industry lobbying ensured that none of the most impactful, best proven alcohol policy solutions (the three Best Buys) was included in the NPA.

Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RVIM) suggests policy solutions to tackle alcohol harm

As soon as the NPA was signed, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RVIM) wrote that “the package of proposed actions and measures is insufficient to realize the ambitions”. RVIM expressed concern that proven effective measures such as increasing excise duties and limiting availability are not being used to achieve the goals.

In his letter on discontinuing the alcohol policy roundtable, the State Secretary has included RVIM’s repeated warnings of the NPA’s lack of effective alcohol policy solutions. The letter also included information that the RVIM made an inventory in 2021 of which additional alcohol policy solutions can be deployed to achieve the targets of the NPA. The set of recommended alcohol policy interventions included proven, high-impact alcohol policy solutions, such as the Best Buy.

The RVIM recommended solutions on:

  • Price regulation,
  • Supply and living environment,
  • Marketing,
  • Information and education,
  • Enforcement and compliance, and
  • (Care) interventions to reduce alcohol harm in the Netherlands.

The alcohol industry lobby delays progress on effective alcohol policy measures

As he reminded in the letter, State Secretary van Oojen in 2021, with the RVIM report, requested the alcohol policy roundtable to come up with a plan to achieve the goals of the NPA. Nevertheless, the alcohol lobby used its influence to delay effective alcohol policy solutions from coming to fruition, again.

The letter informs that in 2022, there were three meetings at the alcohol policy roundtable. Additionally, the school environment, higher education, alcohol marketing, compliance & enforcement and awareness working groups were set up in April to come up with additional actions. No concrete proposals came out of these discussions. The differences of opinion among the parties at the table only deepened.

The chairman of the roundtable, Leon Meijer in an attempt to find a joint solution held talks with 22 individual parties participating in the table. Research and consultancy firm KWINK group was asked to report on these conversations.

The final report by KWINK concluded that despite all parties endorsing the goals for 2040 formulated in the NPA, there are differences of opinion on how the alcohol policy roundtable should tackle it. These differences of opinion are regarding:

  1. The advisory role of the table.
  2. Discussing legal measures at the table.
  3. Lobbying around alcohol policy.

Civil society and public health organizations have stated they cannot justify being a part of the table which has not achieved any substantial results and engages with the alcohol industry lobby.

These concerns are supported by the World Health Organization which states that alcohol policies should be developed, implemented and evaluated on the basis of public health objectives and the best available evidence, and should be protected against interference from commercial interests.

Having the alcohol lobby at the table goes against WHO recommendations as it has opened up Dutch alcohol policies to interference from the alcohol industry, which has a fundamental conflict of interest in terms of public health-oriented alcohol policy making.

Finally, as he wrote in the letter, the KWINK report convinced State Secretary van Oojen that the alcohol policy roundtable is not effective. Therefore, Mr Oojen decided to disband it.

The table does not lead to new effective measures that bring us closer to the objectives of the NPA and has a delaying effect,” wrote Maarten van Ooijen, the State Secretary for Health, Welfare and Sport, in his letter to the House of Representatives, as per the Dutch Government website.

The positions at the table are irreconcilable. I want to break this impasse. [The alcohol policy round table] will therefore be closed.”

Maarten van Ooijen, State Secretary for Health, Welfare and Sport, the Netherlands

The state secretary also wrote that he is committed to preventing alcohol harm in the Netherlands and that the closure of the roundtable ushers in a new phase for alcohol policy where it would no longer be about consensus but commitment to achieving the goals of the NPA by 2040. However, the state secretary says he will continue talks with all parties of the roundtable which includes the alcohol lobby, not in a joint setting but in specific situations or around concrete actions and themes.

Will the new coalition government protect Dutch citizens from alcohol harm?

Despite the assurances from state secretary van Oojen on his commitment to reducing and preventing alcohol harm, the question remains whether the new coalition government will take the needed action.

As Movendi International previously reported, despite RVIM’s recommendations the coalition agreement contains the sentence that “We allow blending by regulating “blurring” in retail areas in a responsible manner, closely monitoring alcohol abuse.”

Blurring means to allow alcohol sales in places other than alcohol outlets, such as at the hairdresser.

  • Right now, there are 55,000 to 70,000 alcohol outlets. 
  • If barbersand others were allowed to sell alcohol, there would be potentially 100,000 additional dispensing points. 
    • Therefore, blurring is in direct contradiction to the goal of preventing and reducing alcohol harm.

A study from May 2019 reported wide-ranging negative effects from blurring, including increased health damage, threats to road safety, and the need for additional enforcement capacity which is costly and already limited.

Communities, civil society and academia have spoken against introducing blurring which will increase alcohol availability and related harms in the Netherlands.

For more information

Alcohol Issues Podcast S2 E6: How Big Alcohol Derails Alcohol Prevention Efforts in the Netherlands