Frost & Sullivan to analyse attitude in Benelux towards drug testing

London 29 July 2003In the European clinical diagnostics arena, the Benelux region often represents one of the smaller markets, if not the smallest market. This can usually be explained by a combination of the relatively low population and their conservative nature towards novel technologies. In terms of revenues generated through the sales of drugs-of-abuse tests (DATs), the Benelux market has again been ranked as the smallest in Europe. In this case, however, the resistance to the use of DATs does not apply evenly across Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg. Here, Alex Wong, health care analyst at Frost & Sullivan, looks at how the geographical differences in uptake are holding back the growth of the Benelux DAT market.

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Belgium has welcomed drug testing just as much as the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian region. On the other hand, the acceptance of DATs is much lower in both The Netherlands and Luxembourg, more on par with France and Spain where deep scepticism surrounds drug testing.

This situation in Europe has stayed largely the same over the past few years and no major changes to end-user attitudes are anticipated during the next two to three years either. When only the Benelux region is considered as a whole, the overall market for DATs for primary screening purposes is currently estimated at over 2,5 million euro. The vast majority of this sum is accounted for by DATs employed in non-health care applications.

Following the implementation of the Action Plan on Drugs and Drug Addiction approved by the Luxembourg Ministry of Health at the turn of the decade, the Belgian Government introduced the Policy Note of the Federal Government on drug problems in 2001. Although the emphasis is placed on prevention rather than repression, the Belgian authorities have adopted a zero-tolerance attitude towards tackling drug abuse.

In terms of revenues, the Benelux countries may well be considered insignificant on the total European scale. However, in terms of DAT adoption, a different picture is painted. In the workplace, it is thought that more than one in three companies in Belgium have already implemented a formal policy to deal with drug abuse. This is considerably higher than the one in ten organisations who are believed to have a drug testing policy in place in the United Kingdom, which is widely deemed to be Europe's leading region in workplace drug testing (WPDT).

Testing of current staff and potential employees has long been established in Belgian public transport industries, especially on the railways and in other safety-critical professions. Despite the fact that there are signs that business-sensitive industries in Belgium and Luxembourg are likely to follow suit and to introduce routine testing, this still remains at a relatively low level for now.

With the possible exception of Switzerland, Belgium is presently more advanced than the rest of Europe in roadside testing. This may be explained by the absence of legislation in the other European states. In 1999, a Belgian law was passed prohibiting the underestimated but widespread practice of driving under the influence of drugs (DUID). From this date onwards, traffic police had the right to request the submission of a urine sample from people suspected of DUID in Belgium for on-site drug testing. In the case of a positive urine result being obtained, a blood specimen may be taken by an independent physician to be sent for confirmation analysis in the laboratory.

In contrast to this hard line approach towards the consumption of drugs, Belgium has been shown to have more in common with the neighbouring Netherlands than first thought. In March 2003, by decriminalising the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use in Belgium, this represented a radical yet forward-thinking method to combat drug abuse more associated with the Dutch way of thinking.

Famous for their leniency towards what may be regarded as taboo in other parts of Europe, it is hardly surprising that the idea of frequent random drug testing continues to face extreme opposition in The Netherlands. Due to their relaxed attitude to recreational drugs, embodied in the form the 800-odd cannabis-selling coffee shops, one could be forgiven for imagining that Holland has one of Europe's highest rates of drug-influenced morbidity and mortality. On the contrary, this is not the case.

With drug abuse seen as more of a social problem rather than a criminal one, there are numerous facilities available to help those suffering from drug addiction. Whilst the total cost of the national Drugs Policy is uncertain, it is thought that around 215 million euro has already been pumped into addiction care and treatment. Such beneficiaries of this funding include rehabilitation clinics, which regularly employ DATs to assist in monitoring the treatment of patients.

The budget allocation for criminal justice services has been documented to be an even greater investment of 300 million euro. A large proportion of this sum is being used to fight the war on the trafficking of hard drugs, on the street and in prisons. Whereas the testing of inmates is often carried out in Dutch prisons, to deter the handling of drug more than anything, roadside testing of DUID is yet to be permitted in either Luxembourg or The Netherlands for the time being.

Likewise, the level of WPDT is also minimal in The Netherlands. Presently, only the military and safety-sensitive industries, such as petrochemical and shipping, are believed to have adopted a drug testing policy in Holland. In jobs where the safety of staff is not thought to be at risk, in the office for instance, it seems extremely unlikely that drug testing will soon be incorporated into the average Dutch person's working life since this would be seen as a gross violation of their privacy.

Under new Dutch regulations, likely to come into play next January, coffee shop customers will no longer be allowed to consume drugs on the premises to protect employees from passive smoking. This has, to no great surprise, already met the stiff opposition from owners and public alike, mirroring the Dutch stance on drug testing.

Just across the border in Belgium, however, the popularity of drug testing is likely to continue rising. Whilst Europe in general is becoming more receptive to the idea of legalising cannabis and the wider use of marijuana in medicine, the concept of drug testing continues to remain controversial, at best. Nowhere are the differences in opinion more apparent in Europe today than in the neighbouring countries within the Benelux region. For more information you can contact Mrs. Katja Feick of Frost & Sullivan.


Leslie Versweyveld

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