I was in Belgium on my recently completed trip I was fortunate enough to try some of their superb craft beer. Belgium has a well established reputation for craft beer – indeed on a canal boat trip I did with my parents in Brugge, the guide/driver pointed out a place which he said has over 1400 craft beers in it. We initially thought he was joking, but I will let you make you minds up after you look at the photo below (it was considerably longer than this):
This and other experiences with alcohol culture in Belgium and other countries around Europe got me thinking about how and why New Zealanders behave in the way they do with alcohol. Is there any way to make New Zealanders drink more responsibly without taking away the pleasure of a beer or wine? Is there a way of having a good time without filling up Accident and Emergency Departments in our hospitals or waking up the following day wishing one had never had that extra round (vomited all over the floor, smashed something, started a fight or other totally improper conduct)?
Belgian craft beer is not weak in alcohol. One might think it does not taste so, but very often I was drinking beers with 8.0-10.0% alcohol. They would be served in 330ml or 500ml glasses. At no point in the trip did I have more than two rounds at a given location and all were accompanied by food or food was consumed prior to alcohol consumption.
I noticed some key differences about the conduct of Europeans around it. I did not not note any seriously drunken behaviour. There were to be sure some loud conversations going on, but a few of the places I had beers at did have acoustic set ups that made things seem louder than they probably were. But I never saw any fights, uncivilized behaviour or police officers arresting anyone.
In many places people would come in, perhaps by bike or on foot, they would order a round and have it. Many would go after just one round. A few would stick around for more. Food was readily available. These establishments would even on Friday generally be shut by 2200-2300, though they were open right through the day.
I did some research. In Belgium 0.05 milligrams of alcohol per millilitre of blood is the limit. Bus drivers and truck drivers, fee paying passenger services – taxi’s, limousines with chauffeurs – have to abide by a 0.2 milligram limit. Compare that with the limits in New Zealand: 0.05 milligrams per 100ml of blood/250 micrograms per litre of breath.
Alcohol limits across the European Union vary considerably. From 0.08 milligrams of alcohol per litre of blood in the United Kingdom, to zero in the Czech Republic and Slovenia (zero generally being interpreted as below detection levels). So do the attendant rules around driver types – some countries set professional drivers (which I take to mean truck, emergency services, etc)low limits such as 0.02 and others make it an offence to drive with any alcohol on board.
Of the wider alcohol problem in New Zealand, I thought about that too. Supermarkets are currently able to sell alcohol. In Europe I saw wine and beer being available in places like service stations, which were more like small scale supermarkets or suprettes. I think that is too liberal and that alcohol should be restricted to alcohol stores, which rigorously enforce the 18+ law. That will take away some of the marketing in front of youths. It will not solve all of the problems with drunkenness, but that was likely to require a societal shift in attitudes anyway.