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Wine and Di(N)e in France

It might come as no surprise to you to learn that in France drinking plays a big part and contributes heavily to their culture. In traditional rural French societies, the presence of wine at the table is part of the “restoration” of the body, and hails from traditional Christianity - (“bread makes flesh and wine makes blood”). Despite France's insistence that it is a heavily secular country, many natives insist it is a drink that is nutritious and also "good" for physical health (its "heat" combats cold and deadly moods) and mental health.

This is not strictly true by any means - alcohol is the second-biggest cause for preventable deaths in France after tobacco, killing some 41,000 people each year - however, somehow alcohol consumption is still rampant in the country. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, France has one of the highest alcohol consumption rates in Europe, with the country trailing behind only Estonia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic in the quantities of alcohol it drinks.

It probably also comes as no surprise to you that wine is this nation's drink of choice - it represents 58 percent of France’s total alcohol consumption. Shared wine is a sign of social joy and warmth in the community. The sharing of wine helps with signing business deals and social celebrations: it seals agreements between new allies, reconciles the disputes of enemies, and allows meetings between complete strangers. Wine, food and medicine, accompanies intimate exchanges and ties the social bonds. But is that all as set in stone as it appears to be?

France is equally infamous for loving wine as it is for failed campaigns for drinking awareness. Well, perhaps not as equally infamous, but close. In all fairness, the consumption of pure alcohol per inhabitant has experienced an uninterrupted decline since the 1960s. While France was once a world champion in consumption with 18L per inhabitant per year, in 2000, it stood at 11.7 L per inhabitant which is a marked improvement. However, 1960 is very recent history. And since 2013, French per capita alcohol consumption has not decreased. The consumption of alcoholic beverages remains deeply rooted in French cultural practices: in 2017, 86.5% of people aged 18 to 75 said they had drunk alcohol in the last 12 months.

Their first-ever alcohol consumption reduction campaign took place in the 1950s and it encouraged the French to “drink less than a litre of alcohol per meal”. That's right. One litre. 6 years later, instead of simply encouraging, a new French law was passed that banned the serving of alcohol to children under the age of 14 in the school canteens. Prior to that, school children had the right to drink half a litre of wine, cider or beer with their meals. When did they implement a full alcohol ban in schools? 1981. The effects of this can be seen today, still. Despite that the legal age to drink or buy alcohol in France is set at 18 years, young teenagers are still renowned for drinking. It is acceptable that a fourteen-year-old drinks wine in the company of their parents at the dinner table - on my own French exchange programme in 2009, I was offered wine. I told my exchange family that I was only thirteen, and they seemed completely nonplussed.

Last year, the public health agency and the National Institute of Cancer (INCa) launched another national campaign, with recommendations for the maximum daily intake of alcohol. They acknowledged French people drink too much - estimating the number to be 10.5 million French adults who consume over the recommended amount. But they also acquiesce that "...the fact that France is a wine manufacturer has certainly played a role when it comes to the French and their relationship to wine."

And there's the smoking gun.

French culture is inexplicably intertwined with wine because it remains an economic backbone of the country - they need to see it as great because their economy depends on it. Thus, many French natives grow up seeing wine on the dinner table, sampling it at around 12 years old and developing a taste for it. The French President himself, Emmanuel Macron told journalists in 2018 that “personally, I drink wine at lunch and dinner”. He also announced that he had no plans to tighten the laws on alcohol advertising during his presidency, saying that those calling for such should “give France a break.”

This year, France tried to do a rendition of “Dry January” but without the support of their government. Primarily, the French-style Dry January was originally going to be managed by Public Health Agency France, which depends on the Ministry of Health. But plans to raise awareness of the risks of alcohol were abandoned under pressure from the wine lobby, and after a lunch with the champagne producers in Epernay, President Emmanuel Macron stated his opposition to the campaign. In fact, winegrowers claim that wine represents a big part of French culture – January 22th is the date for the annual winegrowers’ feast. 

There are some strict French laws banning the advertisement of alcoholic drinks on cinema and television screens (and strict regulation for other media also), however, the effectiveness of this is questionable when there will most likely be a bottle of wine for most ages over twelve on the dinner table when the family arrives home. This is yet another example of culture enforcing change and laws reinforcing said change.

France also has somewhat strict alcohol labelling laws; ingredients and composition of the beverage, alcohol level and volume must all be written on bottles and cans in addition to a logo featuring a "crossed out" pregnant woman - which has been compulsory since 2007. Since the Health Law of January 26 2016, it is prohibited to sell or offer to a minor a product directly inciting the excessive consumption of alcohol. The sale of such products to minors is punishable by law with one-year imprisonment and a €15,000 fine.

Addiction and binge drinking seems to be on the rise in France - despite the number of daily consumers of alcohol falling in France, they have a stagnant yearly litre consumption. In total, 10% of French people are daily alcohol consumers. Daily alcohol consumption is more frequent among men: 15.2% of them drink it every day, compared to 5.1% of women. Occasional drinks (less than once a week) concern 55.7% of women and 36.8% of men. The term Beuverie Express has risen in popularity - it roughly translates to "Fast Drinking" the phenomenon that has made alcohol abuse the cause of 400,000 French hospital admissions a year, a figure that has risen by 30% in the past three years.

There are few charities and organisations to battle this, given that it's such a culturally and societally engrained past time for every occasion and given that the French economy relies on and celebrates wine agriculture. This is a pessimistic end to a slightly sad tale, but we'll see in the next few years whether France can shake the wine plateau.


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