Belgium has struck a note for lasting positive change as the country adopts its first ever Interfederal Plan on Alcohol.
Movendi International has reported before about conflict in the government that derailed previous efforts to address alcohol harm properly.
Under the chairmanship of Minister Frank Vandenbroucke, the Drugs Thematic Meeting approved the 2023-2025 Action Plan as part of the interfederal strategy on the “harmful use of alcohol 2023-2028”.
The new Alcohol Plan was announced in late March by Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke. In his announcement, the Minister expressed his satisfaction with the support for the Alcohol Plan by the local governments. The Alcohol Plan follows the Inter Ministerial Conference on Public Health. The policy is the first agreement of its kind involving all the federal and regional ministries in the country.
The Alcohol Plan includes measures based on recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as the Superior Health Council. (SHC) Belgium’s SHC is a state institution committed to enhancing public health by drawing up scientific advisory reports that provide guidance to decision-makers and health professionals.
Alcohol Plan objectives
The new Alcohol Action Plan also contains specific objectives:
- Strengthening prevention and health promotion,
- Improving access to treatment and care,
- Reducing the number of road deaths and serious injuries caused by alcohol, as well as
- Examining the price of alcoholic beverages.
Other outcomes of the new plan include the improvement of data and analyses around alcohol use, limiting alcohol marketing activities, and providing better access to prevention programs.
The 75 measures set out in the Alcohol Plan therefore focus on alcohol advertising, availability, and appropriate care.
Highlights of the measures in the plan cut across alcohol availability limits, alcohol marketing checks, awareness campaigns, and investments in better care and treatment. For example, the legal age limit for purchasing of hard liquor will rise. Children and youth will be much better protected from alcohol advertising. And the link between cancer and alcohol will be a focus for awareness campaigns.
Limiting alcohol availability
The Alcohol Plan includes measures to limit alcohol availability.
- Spirits will no longer be sold to minors between 16 and 18 years of age.
- Buying port wine, sherry, and martinis is now forbidden for minors.
- Unfortunately, minors between 16 and 18 years of age will still be able to buy beer and wines.
- Alcohol sales from vending machines will be banned. This also includes fortified wines.
- Bans will also be imposed on the sale of alcohol in shops along motorways between 10pm and 7am.
- Alcohol sale is also prohibited in hospitals. However, people can still use alcohol in hospital cafeterias or in restaurants next to highways.
- Offering alcoholic drinks for free as part of promotional campaigns will not be allowed anymore.
Limiting alcohol promotion
The Alcohol Plan includes measures to better check and limit alcohol marketing.
Various regulations will be transposed into a law. Thanks to the creation of an independent body under the aegis of the Federal Public Service Public Health alcohol advertising will better scrutiny and checks. The FPS Public Health will also be responsible for drafting a health notice when it is authorized to market alcohol, in consultation with the sector.
- One of these measures details strict regulations for alcohol advertising on radio and TV.
- When alcohol advertising is permitted, each message should contain a health message, drawn up by the Federal Public Service (FPS).
- Alcohol advertising will be prohibited for at least 5 minutes before and after programs with young-age audiences.
- Advertising in print and online media used primarily for an underage audience will also be prohibited.
- These bans are to come into effect from 2024 onwards.
- Equally important, the bans will be extended to movie theatres by 2025.
- Marketing activities that will be allowed to take place will include a health advisory message by health authorities.
- In addition, the Federal Government has expressed its intent to continue to work on regulations limiting internet and social media advertising aimed at minors.
Holistic approach towards alcohol prevention, treatment, and care
The new Alcohol Plan will include government authorities across different sectors such as the youth work, hospitality, and the sports. These institutions will work together to offer free drinking water in places where alcohol is sold. Such interventions should encourage people to choose a healthier option for refreshment instead of alcohol.
The Belgian government is also set to develop and implement what it calls an “alcohol care pathway” aimed at adolescents and young adults who are hospitalised due to alcohol intoxication. The pilot project aimed at detecting patients at risk more quickly in emergency departments and referring them to ad hoc care will be reinforced.
The authorities have also detailed programs to ensure that the Alcohol Plan is integrated into Belgium’s general policies. It will also include targeted groups such as nightlife, education, seniors, and pregnant women.
- The government plans for various initiatives to be taken or strengthened to raise public awareness of the risks linked with alcohol use by minors.
- In particular the links between cancer and alcohol use will be a focus for awareness raising campaigns.
- These initiatives are intended to help people identify the signs of alcohol use problems more quickly and to direct them towards appropriate and tailor-made care.
Discussions about an alcohol action plan began in 2008. After years of discussions, attempts, and new discussions, not all are satisfied with this compromise action plan. For instance Newsendip reports, the Société Scientifique de Médecine Générale (SSMG), representing the French-speaking general practitioners of Belgium criticized the plan and underlined the need for many more proven, high-impact alcohol policy solutions, such as a complete ban on alcohol advertising.
It recalled alcohol was responsible for at least 5.4 percent of the deaths in Belgium in 2018 and was the fourth leading cause of death for people over 15.
Heavy alcohol burden and urgent need for policy action
The Federal Ministry of Health reports that 14% of the Belgian adults are heavy alcohol users, i.e. they consume more than 10 units of alcohol per week.
In a statement to The Lancet Public Health the WHO confirmed that there is no safe amount of alcohol consumption. This conclusion is important for Belgium as the country begins implementing its first-ever Alcohol Plan.
This same survey indicates that 45% of young consumers (between the age of 15 to 24 years old) began to consume alcohol before the age of 16. Early alcohol use onset is a serious risk factor for a host of health conditions later on in life.
WHO data shows that per capita alcohol use is very high in Belgium, with 12.1 liters. More than 12% of Belgian males have an alcohol use disorder.
And almost 2000 people die in Belgium every year due to cancer caused by alcohol. More than 1000 Belgians pass away due to liver cirrhosis caused by alcohol.
Alcohol was responsible for at least 5.4% of the deaths in Belgium in 2018. And it was the fourth leading cause of death for people over 15 years of age.
This magnitaude of alcohol harm is likely getting worse. Data from a survey in Flanders showed that one in five Flemish people consumed more alcohol during the COVID-19 lockdown.
As reported by Movendi International, alcohol use only worsened during quarantine lockdowns. The Flemish Alcohol and Other Drugs Expertise Centre concluded that alcohol was likely used as an unhealthy coping mechanism.
Belgium’s alcohol policy plans for the future
The new action plan prepares the foundation for more alcohol policy improvements in the future.
The plan also contains a commitment to study the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol in Belgium.
As reported earlier by Movendi International, the envisioned further alcohol policy improvements are likely to come under considerable pressure due to alcohol industry interference.
The 75 actions need to be implemented over the next two years as further measures are scheduled for the period 2026 to 2028.
The Drinks Business: “Belgium Implements Its First-Ever Alcohol Plan“