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Under 16 year olds in the Netherlands could be fined for possessing alcohol in public as part of a crackdown against the rising problem of underage drinking. In specifically targeting—and punishing—youths for possession, the proposals go far beyond most European countries' policies, such as UK bylaws to prevent drinking in public.
But with research that shows a trend towards young Dutch people drinking earlier and more heavily, the Netherlands' Labour Party, part of the governing coalition, says that it's time that national politicians took the lead in preventing cases of “booze, or alcoholic, coma.”
The plan was launched in the Dutch parliament by the Labour MP Lea Bouwmeester, who wrote that Dutch youths are “undoubtedly among the European leaders when it comes to drinking at a very young age.” She cites data from the Trimbos Institute of Mental Health and Addiction, which shows that 47% of 12 year olds had already tried alcohol and that 52% of 15 year olds drank alcohol every week (Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde 2006;150:2521-2).
The paediatrician Nico van der Lely, who in January set up a specialist hospital clinic for young people with alcohol problems, estimates that there could be 500 such cases a year in the Netherlands (BMJ 2006:333;720 doi: 10.1136/bmj.333.7571.720-c).
Although it is illegal to sell alcohol to children, outlets do not check age and older friends buy for younger colleagues. The plan aims to enforce a clear position of no alcohol for under 16 year olds by proposing to make it punishable for children to possess alcohol in public. This is intended to tackle youths who drink on the streets and to prevent alcohol being sold to them from outlets such as supermarkets. The punishment could involve fines or attending obligatory courses, if necessary with their parents.
At the same time, outlets found selling alcohol to under 16 year olds on more than two occasions would have their licence to sell alcohol suspended. Local councils would also have greater powers to investigate and impose fines, and the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority would be given more staff to enforce the law.
Ms Bouwmeester explained that her plan included enforcement and prevention as well as punishment. “You must begin prevention with parents, who are primarily responsible, but you must then ensure young people take their own responsibility by making the possession of alcohol punishable.”
Wim van Dalen, director of the National Foundation for Alcohol Prevention, says that “punishment for possession” is a rare measure in Europe. He fears “the great risk is that attention shifts from the drink and hospitality industry, their products and their responsibility, to young people.” Other measures, such as enforcement, restricting advertising, and higher taxation, are also required, he argues.
The plan enjoys support from MPs in all three parties in the governing coalition and so could be adopted in the forthcoming government review of alcohol policy.