Health & Science

15 years in the making, Belgium approves an action plan against harms of abusive use of alcohol

Fifteen years after Belgian authorities started discussing it, a plan to reduce the harms related to abusive consumption of alcohol in the next two years has been finally validated. It includes 75 actions. People under 18 cannot buy spirits anymore.

Alcohol Belgium
© Giannis Skarlatos

The Interministerial conference public health approved on March 29 the Interfederal Alcohol Plan to tackle the abusive use of alcohol in Belgium. It is the first agreement of the kind involving all federal and regional ministries of the country.

Objectives of the actions include improving data and analyses around alcohol use, imposing more restrictive promotional activities, getting better access to treatment and prevention or reducing alcohol-related traffic accidents.

By 2024, videos promoting alcoholic beverages will be banned from broadcasting at least five minutes before and after a TV show for the young-age public. Similarly, advertising in print publications and online portals primarily for an underage audience will be forbidden. In 2025, such bans will be extended to movie theaters. Allowed marketing activities must include a health advisory message approved by health authorities.

From 2023 on, selling alcohol is forbidden for people under 18, except for wine and beer which can be sold to people over 16. All spirits and strong alcohol are prohibited for sale, a rule that lacked clarity in Belgium as it took the production process into account and not alcohol strength. Buying Port wine, sherry or a Martini is forbidden for underage Belgians.

Vending machines cannot include alcoholic beverages anymore starting in 2024. Similarly, selling alcohol at highway gas stations, but only between 10 pm and 7 am, and in hospitals will not be permitted. However, people can still drink alcohol in a hospital cafeteria or in restaurants next to highways.

According to a 2018 study from the public health research institute Sciensano, 6 percent of the Belgian population is an excess drinker. The World Health Organization defines an excess drinker as a woman who drinks more than ten units of alcohol a week or a man who drinks more than 21 units of alcohol a week, one unit of alcohol accounting for 10 grams of pure alcohol (250 mL of a beer at 5% of alcohol by volume is one unit). Belgians over 15 drink 9.2 liters of pure alcohol per year on average and Belgium is the 26th country that drinks the most alcohol per capita, according to the WHO.

Part of the plan is to study the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol. The idea worries the trade organization Belgian Brewers although they find the program balanced overall. In contrast, Vinum et Spiritus, the Belgian trade organization of wine and spirits, is against the prohibition under 18 years old. “A minor cannot understand responsible consumption” with the ban, its chief executive Geert Van Lerberghe justified to the Belgian newspaper L’Echo. However, he was more in favor of a complete ban on selling alcohol in highway gas stations rather than only at night.

As discussions on the plan, which started in 2008, came close to an agreement, the Société Scientifique de Médecine Générale (SSMG), representing the French-speaking general practitioners of Belgium on March 15 found the “measures culpably weak and insufficient.” It advocated for many more restrictions, 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.

The 75 actions need to be implemented over the next two years as further measures are scheduled for 2026-2028.

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