‘Quoi, just two glasses?’ French urged to cut down on their drinking
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France on Monday launched a national campaign to encourage the wine-loving French to cut down on their drinking after a study showed that a quarter of them over-consume. But many still feel that “a nice meal can’t be enjoyed without a good wine”.
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, according to the World Health Organization. This drinking culture – largely attributed to wine, which represents 58 percent of France’s total alcohol consumption – on Monday prompted the public health agency and the National Institute of Cancer (INCa) to launch a national campaign, with recommendations for the maximum daily intake of alcohol.
“For your health, alcohol should be limited to a maximum of two glasses per day, and not every day either,” they wrote, a limit that 24 percent of French adults regularly surpass. Alcohol is the second-biggest cause for preventable deaths in France after tobacco, killing some 41,000 people each year.
“That’s about 10.5 million adults who drink too much. In any case they drink in proportions that increase the risks to their health, including cancers, high blood pressure, cerebral hemorrhage, and cardiovascular diseases,” Viet Nguyen-Thanh, head of the public health agency’s addiction unit, told FRANCE 24.
Previously, the daily limit had been set at two glasses per day for women and three glasses per day for men.
Nguyen-Thanh said that France’s age-old culture of wine-making is partly to blame.
“It’s part of French history. The fact that France is a wine manufacturer has certainly played a role when it comes to the French and their relationship to wine.”
France’s historic relationship with alcohol is a complicated one. The first-ever campaign to try to get the French to reduce their alcohol consumption was orchestrated by then-prime minister Pierre Mendès France in the mid-1950s. That campaign encouraged the French to “drink less than a litre of alcohol per meal”.
In 1956, France also 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. It was only in 1981 that France implemented a total alcohol ban in the country’s schools.
‘Swimming in wine’
Forty-year-old Caroline from Paris, who did not want to give her real name, said that she grew up “literally swimming in wine”.
“In my family, our meals together have always been extremely important, and there has always been wine on the table.”
Like many other French people, she had her first taste of wine when she was around 12, but she didn't develop a real taste for it until she was in her mid-20s. The legal drinking age in France is 18.
“Wine is so much part of the culture,” she said. “I remember that we would go and visit wine producers while we were on family vacations, for example. It was a thing, and we would always have good bottles of wine at home.”
Caroline, who now has three children of her own, said that for the past few years, she has developed the habit of drinking every day.
“A nice meal just can’t be enjoyed without a good wine,” she said. Since the start of the year, however, she has limited her daily intake to about two glasses of wine, down from a half-bottle.
“I’ve tried to install alcohol-free days on Mondays and Tuesdays, but when Monday comes around, and you’re tired from your day at work and after picking up the kids from school, and it’s time for dinner, I feel I kind of deserve that glass. It’s a way for me to unwind.”
‘Give France a break’
France’s Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume unleashed a torrent of criticism earlier this year when he suggested that wine “isn’t like other alcohols” and rarely the cause of binge drinking among French youth.
“Alcohol addiction is a real problem, notably among young people with binge drinking and so on,” Guillaume said, blaming the problem rather on hard liquor and mixers.
“It’s a real problem but I’ve never seen, to my knowledge – unfortunately, perhaps – a youngster leaving a nightclub drunk because they drank Côtes-du-Rhône, Crozes-Hermitage or Costières-de-Nîmes.”
French President Emmanuel Macron similarly found himself in hot water after telling journalists last year 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.”
As part of the national campaign to reduce alcohol consumption, the public health agency has developed an online “alcometre”, where users can calculate the potential risks linked to their individual alcohol consumption.